Jailhouse informants have recently been a topic of discussion in the state of Washington. Often times, people who are already in prison may receive lighter sentences or have their charges dropped in exchange for giving incriminating testimonies against other suspects. In many cases, these informants lie in order to benefit themselves, which is an issue that lawmakers in Washington hope to fight.
This month, 15 representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties introduced a bill that would require informants who would benefit from their testimony to have their credibility assessed by judges before allowing the testimonies to be presented to a jury. They hope that changes will be made which would help reduce the chances of wrongful convictions occurring based off this type of testimony. The Innocence Project Northwest drafted the bill, in which the requirements would be the first of their kind in the country.
Nevada’s Supreme Court already had similar evaluation requirements in place for capital cases, as did Illinois before the state removed the death penalty. About 12 states assert that some evidence must confirm informants’ testimonies. In addition, many state and federal courts instruct jury members to pay close attention when considering the testimonies of informants. But some feel that analyzing these testimonies should be the responsibility of jurors, not judges as proposed in the bill.
Lara Zarowsky, the policy director for Innocence Project Northwest, stated that offering incentives to informants could be considered witness tampering, and that people would be more likely to lie if they are receiving money for their testimony.
Statistics show that out of the 337 convictions overturned by DNA evidence nationwide, 16 percent of them involved incentivized informants’ incriminating testimonies. They were also involved in about half of death row exonerations. In addition, at least seven wrongful convictions in Washington have been attributed to the incriminating testimonies of incentivized informants.
The bill lists nine factors that judges would have to consider. Some of them include informants’ criminal histories, whether an informant has benefitted from their testimony in past criminal cases, and whether informants’ stories can be validated by independent evidence.
While this is a House bill, hearings were held for both this bill and a state Senate bill this week. The House bill would grant previously convicted defendants new trials if they can prove that an informant lied, which in turn may have affected the outcome of their trial, but the Senate bill would not. The Senate bill would approve the assessments for incentivized informants’ testimonies, but would not make them mandatory.
Representatives hope the recent DNA exoneration of Donovan Allen will help strengthen their case. Allen was convicted in Washington 15 years ago for the murder of his mother in 2000. In addition to making a false confession, Allen’s case also involved jailhouse informants who made incriminating statements in exchange for having charges dropped.