A fundamental tenet of American jurisprudence is that defendants have a right to confront witnesses who testify against them.
But when those testifiers are jailhouse informants, court rules on delivering that constitutional promise are murky.
Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls) sponsors HF992, proposed legislation he says would bring clarity to those rules and give more protection to defendants when evidence introduced in court comes from jailhouse informants.
The bill was held over Tuesday by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion. There is no Senate companion.
Jailhouse informants are typically individuals not involved in a case but testify about what a defendant said to them while the two were incarcerated together.
Long said informants can have dubious intentions and be incentivized to lie in order to receive leniency in their case via a reduced sentence or other considerations.
“We are trying to make sure that justice is being served and innocent people aren’t being wrongfully convicted,” Long said.
Prosecutors would, under the bill, need to disclose specific information to defense counsel about any jailhouse witnesses, including cooperation agreements, the nature of any statements — including recantations — made by the witness, and whether that person has testified or offered to testify in other cases.
Testimony by jailhouse informants was involved in approximately 17% of convictions which were later overturned when DNA evidence exonerated a person, according to Sara Jones, executive director of the Great North Innocence Project.
Jones cited the case of Mike Hansen, a Northfield resident imprisoned for six years when a jailhouse informant falsely testified in 2006 that Hansen had confessed to killing his infant daughter.
In exchange for that testimony, she said, the informant received a “very significant deal” for his testimony: dismissal and reduction of charges so he could avoid prison.
In some cases, jailhouse witnesses recant their trial testimony after they have received the benefit of their bargain.
Jones said this can lead to post-conviction claims of innocence by the convicted, and she noted the proposed legislation would increase the integrity of convictions and reduce post-conviction claims of innocence in those cases.
The attorney general would be required to maintain a statewide database on the use of jailhouse informants.
A very important aspect of that database, said Long, is that it would tell prosecutors how often, and for what kind of leniency, jailhouse informants gave evidence used in court.
“It would help prosecutors to determine the credibility of witnesses before putting someone on the stand,” Long said.