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Don’t Trust the Jailhouse Informants

By Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney on May 31, 2019

Jailhouse informants are notoriously unreliable and have played a role in a number of wrongful convictions. These informants usually get something in return for their testimony, which gives them incentive to lie or stretch the truth. Our skilled Los Angeles criminal defense attorney at Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP can work to refute incriminating, false testimony from a jailhouse informant.

What Is a Jailhouse Informant?

A jailhouse informant, sometimes referred to as an in-custody informant, is a person in county jail or state prison who testifies against a fellow prisoner, usually with the expectation of receiving benefits or a reduced sentence. They often claim to have heard fellow inmates confessing to a crime, though it’s difficult to believe anyone would confess a serious crime to a stranger.

Government officials use these informants to win cases, often ignoring their unreliability and wrongdoing. The “snitch” system does provide real benefits to law enforcement, enabling the prosecutor to investigate and convict criminals who would otherwise escape. The informant deal has become an integral part of plea bargaining, in addition to generating evidence. Unfortunately, the entire system is difficult to track and regulate because of its informal and secretive operations.

What Makes the Testimony of Jailhouse Informants Unreliable?

The potential benefits exchanged for information create a strong incentive for informants to lie. In addition, the secretive nature of the system makes cross-examination and legal safeguards against unreliable testimony ineffective. Generally, jailhouse snitches have several characteristics that make them poor witnesses:

  • Being incarcerated, they are surrounded by vulnerable targets already suspected of criminal conduct.
  • As they are under the control of jail officials, these informants are willing to exchange information for a variety of benefits, such as food, cigarettes, telephone access, visiting privileges, and cell assignments.
  • While they are in jail, informants may acquire skills in gathering and fabricating information, colluding with other prisoners, recruiting others on the outside to do research, and even stealing another prisoner’s legal papers.
  • Even when no promises have been expressly made, the experience of being in jail teaches prisoners that the government will confer benefits in in exchange for information, incentivizing them to extract information and fabricate confessions for leniency.
  • Seasoned snitches know that their testimony is more valuable to the government if they can state that they have not been promised a benefit. They invent reasons for their cooperation (such as being disgusted by the defendant’s crimes) and learn the value of going after targets without express direction from the government.

What Benefits Do Prosecutors Offer Jailhouse Informants?

In-custody informants may be given a wide range of benefits, including:

  • Leniency for the informant’s own crimes (reduced charges in a pending criminal case)
  • Sentence reduction
  • Improved conditions of confinement
  • Special inmate privileges
  • Legal immigration statuses for informant or family members
  • Monetary payments

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Safeguard Your Rights

Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP can work to protect you from the unreliable testimony of a jailhouse informant by requesting a pretrial reliability hearing. Before allowing an in-custody informant’s testimony at trial, the court should be asked for a finding as to the witness’s reliability after considering the following factors:

  • Any deal, inducement, benefit, or promise the prosecution has made or will make in the future to the informant.
  • Complete criminal history of the jailhouse informant.
  • Time, place, and substance of statements allegedly made by the defendant and heard by the jailhouse informant, and the names of all parties present at the time.
  • Time and place of the disclosure of these alleged statements to law enforcement.
  • Whether the jailhouse informant has recanted statements made at any time, along with the details, if so.
  • Other cases in which the in-custody informant has provided testimony about other inmates, and any benefits received by the informant for that information.
  • Any other information relevant to the credibility of the informant as a witness.

Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP was founded in 1994. For more than two decades, we have been providing outstanding criminal defense for our clients. We handle many challenging, high-profile and celebrity defendant cases, and our lawyers are often interviewed by major publications for a perspective on legal cases in the media.

Attorney Mark Werksman is a former Deputy District Attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney who has been practicing criminal law since 1986. Alan Jackson is a former prosecutor and Assistant Head Deputy for the Major Crimes Division at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Kelly Quinn is a certified specialist in writs and appeals.

If the outcome of your case is being affected by unreliable testimony from a jailhouse informant, contact us as soon as possible at (213) 688-0460. You can have confidence that when our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys take on a case, we are effective, efficient, and will present a well-crafted legal strategy to achieve a positive outcome.

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Posted in: Criminal Defense