To date, the United States has seen 367 individuals exonerated by DNA testing nationwide. Roughly one in five exonerations have been linked to faulty testimony of jailhouse informants — inmates awaiting sentencing that claim to have heard admissions of guilt from a fellow prisoner.
But, as per a new bill signed by Gov. Ned Lamont this summer, Connecticut may be the first state in the country to change this. The bill, which will go into effect on Oct. 1, will implement a statewide tracking system on jailhouse informants and will specifically follow the advantages that accompany providing testimony.
“It is essential for states to look more closely at this issue because allowing unreliable evidence to convict the wrong person is harmful to public safety, the integrity of the criminal legal system, and innocent people and their loved ones,” said New England Innocence Project Executive Director Radha Natarajan in a statement to the News.
The new legislation allows a defendant in any criminal prosecution to request whether the prosecutorial official intends to introduce testimony of a jailhouse witness. If such a witness will be introduced, the prosecutor must disclose the complete criminal history of the jailhouse witness, as well as the cooperation agreement between the witness and the state official, no later than 45 days later than the filing.
Additionally, the bill requires that upon the defendant’s request, a judge must hold a pretrial hearing to determine whether or not an informant’s testimony is reliable. Determinations of reliability include the specificity of the testimony and the extent to which the testimony is confirmed by other evidence, among other requirements.
Natarajan stressed that no one wants an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted, so it is incumbent on states to allow for a true examination of the reliability of incentivized testimony.
Wrongful convictions have also hurt residents closer to home.
Elm City resident Scott Lewis was wrongfully convicted of a double homicide in 1991. After 20 years behind bars, he was exonerated and his charges were dismissed by the state. A judge found that New Haven detective Vincent Raucci Jr. was feeding facts to a witness testifying against Lewis.
In an interview with the News, Lewis said that witnesses often do not lie on their own, but are encouraged by prosecutors to misrepresent the facts.
“The problem with the use of informant testimony is not simply the use of informants to testify,” Lewis said. “The problem is the systematic abuse by prosecutors that allow these witnesses to lie in exchange for favorable treatment.”
According to Natarajan, Connecticut is taking the lead on a nationwide push for more accountability in criminal cases, motivated in part by tragic stories of wrongfully convicted individuals — including Lewis — who have spent years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit due to a false informant testimony.
Natarajan said that the jailhouse informant may believe — correctly or not — that their testimony will lead to their own freedom or a reduced sentence. She emphasized that the reliability of such evidence, like all evidence, should be scrutinized in a courtroom.
“With testimony from jailhouse informants leading to so many wrongful convictions, it is imperative that there be safeguards in place to protect innocent defendants in criminal cases,” the ACLU of Connecticut said in a statement after the bill was passed.
When asked for comment, Yale Law School lecturer and researcher on prosecutorial power, ethics and accountability Laura Fernandez pointed the News to an opinion piece she published in the Hartford Courant this April.
Listing several cases of wrongful convictions, Fernandez asserted that heightened transparency is needed to properly assess jailhouse witnesses’ motivations and reliability. She described her support for the bill and urged the governors to sign the full legislation.
“Jailhouse witness testimony is uniquely unreliable,” she wrote in the column. “The expectation of receiving leniency for testimony creates an enormous incentive to lie, which can and does result in tragic outcomes for both innocent defendants and crime victims.”
The bill was signed into law on July 8.
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