About the Use of Informants
According to the Innocence Project, the use of jailhouse informants and other incentivized witnesses is a demonstrated cause of wrongful conviction. A groundbreaking report that focused upon the “snitch system,” published by the Center on Wrongful Convictions in 2004, found that incentivized witnesses were the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases. A comprehensive study of the nation’s first 200 exonerations proven through DNA testing concluded that 18% were convicted, at least in part, on the basis of informant, jailhouse informant or cooperating alleged co-perpetrator testimony.
In 10% of wrongful conviction cases reversed using newly discovered DNA evidence, a snitch or informant testified against the defendant. It should not come as a surprise that snitches lie or falsify evidence on the stand. For a desperate inmate, incentives like a shortened sentence can become very enticing. Similarly, snitches facing possible jail time are often compelled to testify on behalf of the prosecution as a way to avoid incarceration themselves. This kind of informant testimony can literally make or break a case when no hard evidence is involved.
People have been wrongfully convicted in cases where the snitch:
- Was paid to testify
- Testified in exchange for being released from prison
- Testified that they overheard a confession or witnessed the crime
Reform is necessary to reduce the weight juries attach to the unreliable testimony of snitches.
Possible remedies include assessing the credibility of the informant and revealing their prior history to the jury, electronically recording all meetings with the informant, and ensuring the snitch does not have access to sensitive case information.