Wrong convictions spur Florida to rethink using jail informants

From the Orlando Sentinel:

Chad Heins, a Jacksonville man, spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit based solely on the testimony of two jailhouse informants who lied to jurors, saying Heins had confessed.

According to the Innocence Project, a New York nonprofit that works to free the innocent, 15 percent of all wrongful convictions later cleared by DNA testing featured false testimony by jailhouse informants. In murder cases, it’s 50 percent.

Now, Florida’s Innocence Commission, the blue-ribbon panel working to prevent future false convictions here, is debating what to do about them.

The panel could make Florida the only state in the nation that would require judges to review the reliability of jailhouse informants — as well as any witness with pending criminal charges — before allowing them to testify at a felony trial.

The commission staff is drafting proposed legislation that would do exactly that. The 24-member panel debated the issue earlier this month and is expected to take it up again at its next meeting in February.

Florida currently requires a pretrial reliability test for scientific evidence, said Henry “Hank” Coxe III, aJacksonville lawyer, panel member and former president of the Florida Bar. If it requires a test for that, it should also for “something this critically important.”

In Florida, jailhouse-informant testimony not only sent Heins to prison, it also was among other pieces of now-discredited evidence that sent two innocent Brevard County men, William Dillon and Wilton Dedge, to prison for more than 20 years each — Dillon for murder and Dedge for rape.

A study by two University of California-San Francisco psychologists found that inmates tend to be very good liars. In their study, Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivanfound that deceptive inmates were often successful at fooling people. The group they were least able to fool wasU.S. Secret Service agents, who correctly identified deception 64 percent of the time.

Only one state — Illinois — requires a judge to review before trial whether a jailhouse informant’s testimony is reliable and therefore should be admitted, but that’s only for death-penalty cases, said Les Garringer, the Florida Innocence Commission’s executive director.

The proposed legislation he’s drafting would require those hearings in all felony cases in Florida.

At those hearings, a judge would likely review the informant’s criminal record; whether he was promised anything in exchange for his testimony; whether he had testified as an informant in the past; and whether he ever had recanted previous testimony.

The panel also is considering recommending that juries be read a new, special jury instruction warning them about the dangers of relying on the testimony of jailhouse informants.

Two weeks ago, panel members debated but backed away from requiring that all jailhouse-informant testimony be corroborated before it is admitted. That is the case in Texas and California.

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