Texas Leads the Way in Setting Limits on Prosecutors' Use of Jailhouse Snitches

The jailhouse snitch is a stock character in the courtroom dramas we all know and love, the last-minute surprise witness whose testimony stuns the jury and locks up the case.In real life, snitches sometimes lie. In real life, they can - and do - cost innocent people their freedom.To Texas' everlasting credit, it is about to become a national model for reducing the chances for "incentivized testimony," a polite term for paid snitching, to tip the scales in our state's courtrooms.A significant measure recently enacted by the state Legislature establishes strict record-keeping guidelines for the use of jailhouse snitches in obtaining convictions: Who they are; what they told; what they got for telling.Historically, it has been all-too-easy for prosecutors to shore up shaky cases with dubious, unverifiable testimony helpfully supplied by stool pigeons primed by such incentives as reduced sentences, special treatment, even cash."Unfortunately, what drives whether or not a prosecutor uses a jailhouse informant, is how bad they need them," said Innocence Project of Texas Executive Director Mike Ware, a former Dallas County Assistant District Attorney, in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman. "If it's a high profile case and evidence is lacking, they need them."The state is wisely working hard to make up for a dismal track record: More than 30 wrongful Texas convictions have been uncovered and overturned over the last three decades. Cracking down on informant testimony was one of the top reform measures recommended by a legislature-appointed commission tasked with finding ways to protect the system and the public in the future.Legitimate informant testimony can bolster a felony prosecution, and it remains permissible under the law.But in too many cases, police and prosecutors have used dubious snitches as witnesses to shore up shaky cases. Just last week, a Nevada man named DeMarlo Berry was freed after spending 20 years in prison for the murder of a Las Vegas fast-food worker. Another man later confessed to the crime, and the snitch whose testimony helped convict Berry admitted he lied on the stand in exchange for favors from detectives in the case.Nationally, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law has cited informant testimony as the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases."Criminal snitching is an enormous problem for our justice system, in part because it is an enormous source of error," writes Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff, a leading expert in the role of snitch testimony in wrongful convictions. She calls snitching-for-leniency a troubling "marriage of convenience" in which both prosecutors and the snitch benefit from what may not be truthful testimony.State law enforcement and prosecutors will still have access to informant testimony. But the new law helps make sure strict guidelines will be followed before those shattering last-minute surprises are allowed in Texas courtrooms.How Texas is leading in 'snitching' reformHouse Bill 34, signed into law last month by Gov. Greg Abbott, imposes regulations on the use of jailhouse informants, including:County and district attorney offices must maintain a database of informant information, including previous cases in which they have provided information, and the benefits they received in each case. All informant information must be disclosed to defense attorneys, including charges for which informants were arrested but not convicted. Defendants must be informed of any grant, immunity offer, sentence reduction, leniency or special treatment given by the state in exchange for testimony.Source: innocenceproject.orgWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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