Are Jailhouse Informants Reliable?

The use of jailhouse informants – otherwise known as “snitches” – isn’t just a practice used by attorneys on the big screen. Although invisible to the public eye, jailhouse informants are pervasive in our justice system, and are commonly used by prosecuting attorneys in criminal defense trials everyday to help secure a guilty verdict. Though it’s never expressly stated, the prosecution offers incentives to inmates who cooperate, such as lighter sentences, relocation to more favorable detention facilities, or even a chance at acquittal.

Furthermore, jailhouse informants don’t just come by information on accident; rather, inmates more or less apply for the position of informant, and if they land the role, are strategically placed throughout the jailhouse to elicit information from unsuspecting inmates.

This practice is not only detrimental to our justice system, but also, it has the potential to ruin the lives of many innocent people, as false accusations can lead to wrongful convictions, unfavorable records and even death.

Jailhouse Informants Are The Leading Cause Of Wrongful Convictions

Since capital punishment was resumed in the 1970’s, there have been 111 death row exonerations. Snitch testimony accounted for 45.9% of those exonerations, making jailhouse informants the leading cause of wrongful convictions. (Updated data shows that since October 12, 2015, there have been 156 exonerations.) Criminal testimony has proven to be a huge source of error, yet prosecutors continue to build whole cases around them because they almost always guarantee a conviction.

Take the case of Ann Colomb and her three sons, for instance. In 2006, the family was accused of running a crack cocaine ring in Louisiana. They were convicted based on the fabricated testimonies of thirty jailhouse informants, all of whom were promised time off their sentences in exchange for a testimony. Later, it was found that a folder containing information on the Colomb case was “accidentally left” in the jailhouse, only to be picked up by an unassuming inmate, who wrote to the U.S. Attorney’s office testifying that he did sell drugs to the family; the file was later sold to twenty nine other inmates throughout the prison, all of whom did the same thing with the information they had.

State Officials Work To Put An End To Wrongful Convictions

In 1964, in Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201, 204, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “police officers who use undercover informants to interrogate someone represented by counsel violate the accused’s Sixth Amendment right to an attorney.” There have been other addendums to the 14th Amendment as well that disparage the use of jailhouse informants, but it wasn’t until recently that state officials really started to take proactive measures to end the use of jailhouse informants.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law in August of 2011 that would prevent wrongful convictions by requiring jailhouse testimony to be corroborated by further evidence.

Some state legislatures are working hard to eliminate the problem of false testimony by criminal informants, but there are just as many, if not more, that are lagging behind in this area of the law. Unfortunately, until the problem is fully eradicated, innocent people across the nation are left reeling from wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

Getting Legal Help

If you’ve been wrongly accused or convicted of a crime that you did not commit, you know the lasting consequences that such an event can have on your life. Even if you received a Not Guilty verdict, an arrest will still be a part of your file, accessible to everyone from your next door neighbors to future employers. To protect your future, contact an experienced San Diego criminal defense attorney today to see how we can help.

Ozols Law Firm
8880 Rio San Diego Dr. #22
San Diego, CA 92108
(619) 288-8357