New Policy Paper on Jailhouse Snitch Testimony
The use of jailhouse snitch testimony has been widely used throughout the American criminal justice system. Unfortunately jailhouse snitches are often utilized by prosecutors despite their testimony being widely regarded as the least reliable form of evidence in the criminal justice system. A 2005 study of 111 death row exonerees found that 51 were wrongly sentenced to death in part due to testimony of witnesses with incentive to lie.
The motive to fabricate testimony is inherent in a system that rewards snitching for personal gain. When the state offers a benefit in exchange for testimony, whether that benefit is explicitly stated or, as is often the case, implied, the incentive for an incarcerated person to fabricate evidence dramatically increases. With little to lose and much to gain, jailhouse snitches are often desperate to attain compensation – such as sentence reductions or even an agreement that they not be prosecuted at all – in exchange for testimony against another person.
Fabricated snitch testimony that leads to wrongful convictions is expensive not only in financial costs, but in societal costs: an innocent person is punished while a guilty person remains at large. The state is less credible in its pursuit of justice. And public frustration with delayed and unreliable justice grows.
The report concludes with recommendations:
- Written pretrial disclosures of witness compensation arrangements and other information bearing on witness credibility.
- Pretrial hearings on the reliability of a particular informant’s testimony.
- A requirement that accomplice or in-custody informant testimony be corroborated.
- Cautionary jury instructions alerting the jury to the reliability issues presented by snitch testimony.
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