In 15% of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing, 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.
Larry Peterson was wrongly convicted in 1989 of murder and sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison. Four people – three of Peterson’s co-workers and a jailhouse informant – helped the state convict Peterson with false testimony. During an investigation of the crime, police interviewed some of Peterson’s co-workers several times. After lengthy interrogations, threats of prosecution and other questionable police tactics, the three men said Peterson had confessed to them during a ride to work. Records have since shown that Peterson did not work on the day these men said the confession occurred. A jailhouse informant with charges pending in three counties also testified that Peterson had admitted guilt to him while in the county jail. DNA finally proved Peterson’s innocence in 2005 and he was exonerated in 2006.
DNA exonerations have shown that informants lie on the stand. To many, this news isn’t a surprise. Testifying falsely in exchange for an incentive – either money or a sentence reduction – is often the last resort for a desperate inmate. For someone who is not in prison already, but who wants to avoid being charged with a crime, providing false testimony may be a desperate measure to avoid incarceration.
People have been wrongfully convicted in cases in which incentivized witnesses:
In some cases, informants come forward voluntarily, often seeking deals or special treatment. But sometimes law enforcement officials seek out informants and give them extensive background on cases — essentially feeding them the information they need to provide false testimony.
Incentivized witnesses continue to testify in courtrooms around the country today. In some cases without biological evidence, the incentivized witness’ testimony is the only evidence of guilt.
Vital reforms are needed to ensure that unreliable incentivized witnesses are not given undue weight by juries.
In 2005, the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago issued a report, “The Snitch System: How Incentivized Witnesses Put 38 Innocent Americans on Death Row.” The study provides a comprehensive look at the problem of informant testimony, and describes in detail how the use of informant testimony contributed to the conviction of specific innocent defendants.