Among the factors that have sent innocent people to prison for crimes they didn’t commit, one stands out for its sheer cynicism and potential for abuse. Jailhouse informants — also known as “snitches” — trade testimony against other inmates for more favorable treatment by prosecutors.
Nationwide, 20 percent of DNA-based exonerations feature lying snitches. As a result, many states are tightening the rules on the use of jailhouse informants. Florida lawmakers should follow suit.
There’s little doubt that snitch testimony can be compelling. Jailhouse informants often recount confessions with facts they’d otherwise have no way of knowing. A skillful prosecutor, playing on the “snitches get stitches” trope, can make it seem as if a jailhouse informant is heroically coming forward at great personal risk.
But an unscrupulous or overzealous prosecutor can also work with snitches to flesh out those convincing details — or even worse, collaborate to create testimony describing confessions that never took place.
Nobody wants to believe that would happen. But in at least three high-profile Florida exonerations, it probably did, including:
•William Dillon, freed in 2007 after spending 27 years in prison on a trumped-up murder charge. One of the key witnesses in Dillon’s 1981 conviction was Roger Dale Chapman, who described Dillon confessing to, and even acting out, the murder in a jail dining hall. Decades later, DNA evidence definitively exonerated Dillon. Chapman appeared at a 2009 legislative inquiry, describing how investigators threatened to falsely charge him as well if he didn’t help convict Dillon.
•Chad Heins, released from prison 14 years after he was charged with murdering his sister-in-law in Jacksonville. During his trial, two inmates testified that Heins described committing the murder and then erasing physical evidence — testimony that conveniently filled in glaring holes in the state’s case, which relied on the assertion that a 19-year-old Heins was sophisticated enough to remove any evidence that he’d committed the bloody murder. A third inmate later testified that he’d overheard the first two inmates conspiring to lie.
These cases, and others, have already inspired reforms in Florida. Standard jury instructions (which judges read before sending a jury to deliberate) include a section on evaluating the credibility of witnesses who may “have a reason to make a false statement in order to strike a good bargain with the State.” In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court modified the rules of evidence, requiring prosecutors to disclose any benefit provided to informants such as reductions of pending charges or requests to shorten sentences, among other reforms.
But, as described in a recent Associated Press story, other states have written those safeguards into law and enacted others — including formal tracking of jailhouse informant testimony and increased ability for judges to exclude dubious snitch testimony.
There’s a lot more Florida can do to prevent wrongful convictions and free people serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. Revising laws governing snitch testimony should be an easy step toward justice for Florida lawmakers, and one they should take in the upcoming session.
This editorial first appeared in the Daytona Beach News Journal