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Posted on May 13, 2015
The National Registry of Exonerations has added a code that identifies cases in which the evidence against the exoneree included testimony by a jailhouse informant—a witness who was in custody with the exonerated defendant and who testified that the defendant confessed to him.

"Jailhouse snitch" testimony, as it is commonly known, is notoriously unreliable because the incarcerated witnesses are strongly motivated to say what the prosecution wants, usually because they get substantial reductions in their own sentences in return. This problem has been in the news lately. Cameron Todd Willingham  was executed for murder by arson in Texas in 2004 based on forensic evidence that was later discredited, and testimony from a jailhouse informant. That informant recently came forward to say that his testimony was false and was procured by a secret deal with the prosecutor. And in Orange County, California, the District Attorney is under fire because an aggressive, illegal and secret program of using jailhouse informants in murder prosecutions has come to light.

To find the jailhouse informant cases in the Registry, go to the Detailed View  under the Browse Cases tab, place the cursor over the heading "Tags" in the heading bar above the list of cases, click on the down arrow arrow.jpg that appears and choose "JI" ("Jailhouse Informant") from the drop-down menu.

Eight percent of all exonerees in the Registry were convicted in part by testimony from jailhouse informants, 119 out of 1,567.  They are concentrated among the worst crimes: 102 out of 119 are murder cases, 15%, of all murder exonerations, compared to 2% of all other exonerations (17/900). Among murders, the more extreme the punishment, the more likely we are to see a jailhouse informant, ranging from 23% of exonerations with death sentences to 10% of murder cases in which the defendant received a sentence less than life in prison. See Table 1.
This pattern makes sense.  There is more at stake in prosecutions for murder than for lesser crimes—and more yet among the minority of highly aggravated murders that get sentences of life without parole or death—so the authorities appear to be more willing to cut deals or do other favors for prisoners in return for testimony, which can easily lead to perjury.
There is one noteworthy pattern among the few exonerations in which jailhouse informants helped convict innocent defendants for lesser crimes than murder: they are much more likely to testify in federal than in state cases. About 10% of federal exonerations in non-murder cases included jailhouse informant testimony (8/81), compared to 1% of non-murder exonerations in state courts (9/819). We can't generalize from this small number, especially since four of the eight federal informant exonerations were in a single four-defendant drug prosecution, but it suggests that trials for crimes other than murder are more likely to include jailhouse informants if they take place in federal court.
- Samuel Gross & Kaitlin Jackson