A feature on KERA News details how an Innocence Project client’s case changed the way prosecutors handle incentivized witnesses in one Texas county.
John Nolley was convicted in Tarrant County of a 1996 murder based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Nolley confessed to the crime while they were together in police custody.
At Nolley’s trial, the informant told the court he was not receiving any benefits in exchange for his testimony. Nolley had been in prison for 15 years before Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Nina Morrison discovered that the informant in fact avoided jail time in his own criminal case by testifying against Nolley. The informant previously spent a year and a half reaching out to prosecutors offering to testify against other defendants in exchange for a lighter sentence in his case.
“It was just earth shattering,” Morrison told KERA. “And I knew then that John Nolley had a very good shot at getting his freedom at last.”
In May of 2016, a judge overturned Nolley’s conviction and he was released after 19 years in prison.
In order to prevent another person from being wrongly convicted based on false testimony from an incentivized witness, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office enacted a policy to track and regulate the use of jailhouse informants. It was only the second office in the nation to do so.
The new policy includes maintaining a database of all incentivized witnesses to keep track of who is testifying in which cases and what they are getting in return for their testimony, since prosecutors must disclose this information in court.
“You can’t be transparent about things you don’t know about, so we have to track that information to make sure that we comply with our ethical and legal obligations of disclosure,” said Dawn Boswell, head of the Tarrant County Conviction Integrity Unit.
Prosecutors are now working with local police to retest physical evidence in Nolley’s case and find the actual perpetrator of the crime in order to officially exonerate him. In the meantime, Morrison told KERA, Nolley is enjoying his hard-wrought freedom.
“It’s always a challenge to come out of prison after losing nearly two decades of your life for a crime you didn’t commit, but he’s done an amazing job of rebuilding his life one step at a time,” Morrison said.