This is a guest post by John F. Terzano of The Justice Project
Harold Hall was only 18 years old when he was sent to prison. He spent nearly two decades of his life in a California prison for crimes he did not commit.
Hall was wrongfully convicted of double murder in 1985 based in part on evidence provided by a jailhouse informant who fabricated a confession Hall allegedly made to him.
Jailhouse informant testimony is widely regarded as the least reliable form of testimony in the criminal justice system, but unfortunately in Mr. Hall’s case and numerous others, uncorroborated testimony from unscrupulous jailhouse informants, or “snitches,” is still used by prosecutors to obtain convictions.
According to a San Francisco Magazine study, unreliable testimony of informants was a factor in approximately 20% of all wrongful convictions in California. This problem extends nationwide as shown in a study by The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, which identifies snitch testimony as the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.
Higher standards for admitting snitch testimony at trial must be put in place to protect innocent people like Mr. Hall from the consequences of unreliable, incentive-driven testimony. Best practices to safeguard against perjured testimony include:
- Mandatory, automatic pretrial disclosures of information related to jailhouse informant testimony
- Corroboration of the facts to which an informant testifies, special jury instructions
- Higher standards for the admissibility of snitch testimony at trial.
(Please visit The Justice Project’s website for more details on snitch testimony reforms. http://www.thejusticeproject.org/solution/accomplice-testimony.html. Also the ACLU of Northern California has an effort underway to help end wrongful convictions.)
A vital piece of legislation for raising the standards of use for jailhouse informant testimony, is California Senate Bill 609, sponsored by Senator Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), which requires corroboration for jailhouse informants.
The bill has passed the State Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committee, and will soon be heading to the Assembly Floor for a final vote. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has endorsed the bill and they are already applying informant corroboration as a rule. But if the bill passes the Assembly, Governor Schwarzenegger will have an opportunity to implement this important reform statewide.
In addition to corroborating jailhouse informant testimony, improving eyewitness identification and videotaping custodial interrogations have been shown to prevent wrongful convictions. Senate Bill 756, sponsored by Senator Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles, Culver City), addresses the development of new guidelines for eyewitness identification procedures, and Senate Bill 511, sponsored by Senator Elaine K. Alquist (D-Santa Clara), would require full electronic recording of interrogations in both juvenile and adult cases.
Wrongful convictions such as Mr. Hall’s plague our criminal justice system and can no longer be ignored. We hope that the legislature will support these three critical bills and that the Governor will ultimately sign them into law. California law enforcement, prosecutors, and the community will all benefit from more reliable outcomes in criminal cases.
John F. Terzano is the President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to address unfairness and inaccuracy in the criminal justice system, with a focus on the capital punishment system.
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