Incentivized Informants

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.

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:

  • Have been paid to testify
  • Have testified in exchange for their release from prison
  • Have testified in multiple distinct cases that they have evidence of guilt, through overhearing a confession or witnessing the crime

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.

Read the full recommendations in our fact sheet on incentivized testimony.

Landmark Study

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.

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