In September 1991, Greg Taylor, a Greensboro native, got his Nissan Pathfinder stuck in mud on an evening when he was smoking crack with a friend. When a prostitute was found dead nearby, Taylor became an immediate suspect. He was convicted in 1993 largely on the strength of testimony from two jailhouse informants. In 2010, DNA evidence overturned Taylor’s conviction and he walked out of prison a free man. The state of North Carolina eventually paid Taylor a $4.6 million settlement.
Considering the inherent unreliability of testimony from informants who are incentivized to give false witness by to get their own sentences reduced, lawmakers should be eager to implement reforms on the use of so-called “snitch testimony” to prevent innocent people from going to prison, to ensure that the actual perpetrators of heinous crimes don’t remain on the loose and to avoid expensive settlements.
Taylor’s case is unfortunately not an anomaly.
In 15 percent of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing, the Innocence Project has found that “statements from people with incentives to testify — particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury — were critical evidence used to convict an innocent person.”
The significance of snitch testimony dramatically increases in capital cases.
A 2004 study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions that examined the cases of 111 people exonerated for crimes in which they were sentenced to death found that 51 — or 45.9 percent — were based “on the testimony of witnesses with incentives to lie.” Unreliable snitch testimony was the leading cause of wrongful convictions, followed by erroneous eyewitness testimony, false confessions and false and misleading scientific evidence.
The Innocence Project recommends a number of commonsense reforms: Requiring informant statements to be electronically recorded so that law enforcement can’t feed facts about the crime to an informant, holding a pre-trial hearing to assess the reliability and corroborate the content of informant testimony, and requiring judges to instruct juries on the longstanding fallibility of informant testimony.
The state of Texas, which established a commission in 2015 to examine exonerations and reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions, has recently implemented some of these reforms, including requiring that police interrogations be recorded and requiring prosecutors to maintain thorough records of the jailhouse informants they use. The information includes “the nature of their testimony, the benefits they receive and their criminal history,” according to a Sunday New York Times editorial. The prosecution is then required to disclose that information to defense lawyers.
“Texas has become a national leader in criminal-justice reforms, after having long accommodated some of the worst practices and abuses in the nation,” the Times wrote. “The state, particularly in light of past abuses, deserves credit for seeking innovative solutions to problems that have long proved resistant to change.”
What’s remarkable about Texas’ story is that in a period of acute political polarization, these reforms are being carried out by a deep red state with a Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature.
Criminal-justice reform has not fared so well in North Carolina, with its extreme right-wing legislature and politically neutralized Democratic governor.
A bipartisan bill to rein in the use of jailhouse informants passed the House in March. It received a favorable hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 20, but since then has languished in the Rules Committee. The primary sponsors include two mountain Republicans, Reps. David Rogers and Destin Hall, along with Rep. Duane Hall, an urban Democrat from Wake County. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) is a co-sponsor.
The proposal to reform the use of in-custody informant statements includes five critical components:
- A defendant could not be convicted of an offense or receive an aggravated sentence if the only supporting evidence was the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant;
- Judges would be required to instruct juries that the informant’s testimony must be scrutinized with regard to reliability, including whether they’ve received any assurance from the prosecutor of favorable treatment in exchange for their testimony;
- All informant interviews must be recorded in a way that shows a continuous, unaltered and uninterrupted record of the interrogation;
- District attorneys would be required to maintain a central file preserving records of contacts with informants; and
- The state would be prohibited from destroying recordings of informant interviews until one year after the completion of all state and federal appeals of the conviction.
Why won’t Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger and the Republican leadership in the Senate allow this common-sense legislation to receive a hearing before the full Senate? Why won’t our elected representatives even consider the reforms that conservative lawmakers in Texas have seen fit to enact? Every day this legislation gathers dust in the Senate Rules Committee is another day that innocent North Carolinian face the risk of being locked up based on false testimony from dishonest informants trying to save their own skin.