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Jailhouse informants: lying for leniency? | COMMENTARY

Clarence Shipley Jr. is escorted from Courthouse East in 2018 by his lawyer from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Michele Nethercott. Shipley, of Cherry Hill, was released after the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office vacated his conviction and dismissed all charges. He spent 27 years in jail after being convicted for a murder he did not commit.
Clarence Shipley Jr. is escorted from Courthouse East in 2018 by his lawyer from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Michele Nethercott. Shipley, of Cherry Hill, was released after the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office vacated his conviction and dismissed all charges. He spent 27 years in jail after being convicted for a murder he did not commit.(Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Jailhouse informants can be powerful witnesses in helping to make a difficult case, but too often, those with questionable motives and a loose relationship with the truth have been given way too much influence over criminal cases — and the fate of people’s lives. Their false finger pointing and outright lies have resulted in innocent people winding up in prison, or, in the worst cases, sentenced to death row.

There are at least four cases in Maryland in which innocent people were convicted based in part on dubious testimony from jailhouse informants and later exonerated — much later. Clarence Shipley, for example, spent 27 years in prison based on false evidence by a jailhouse witness who received lenience in exchange for testimony.

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It’s time the state cracks down on the testimony from informants motivated by promises of reduced sentences or other incentives, to protect the integrity of the judicial system and help bring an end to false convictions.

Maryland needs to join other states that limit the use of such informants and provide for extra vetting, as legislation pending in the General Assembly aims to do. It will only improve the chances of reaching fair and correct convictions. Preventing even one innocent person from going to prison is worth the extra effort.

The legislation, introduced by state Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, would require prosecutors to disclose whether jailhouse informants were promised sentencing reductions, early release or other incentives in exchange for their testimony; and if they brokered similar deals in other cases.

A judge would hold a hearing to determine credibility before a jailhouse informant was allowed to testify.

It is only fair that this kind of information is revealed. A frequent flyer informant should raise suspicions about credibility and motive and could make a difference in the outcome of a case. Testify in enough trials and a jailhouse informant can get that much closer to freedom. For some, that is incentive to lie.

Knowing this kind of history can provide a defense attorney with more evidence to better represent clients and could make a difference in the outcome of a case.

The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association opposes the legislation and has said prosecutors already heavily screen informants for credibility. If that is the case, they should have no problem with an extra layer of scrutiny. If prosecutors are confident in their witnesses, why the pushback?

At least one prosecutor also said jailhouse informants aren’t used regularly. Another reason why a hearing shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience if it would only happen in a minimum amount of cases.

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Getting the right conviction should be the priority. When we send the wrong people to prison, the true bad guys remain on the streets. Nationally, jailhouse informant testimony led to nearly one in five convictions of 367 known cases in which people were freed based on DNA evidence, according to the non-profit The Innocence Project.

We understand that prosecutors are already required to divulge deals with jailhouse witnesses, but some say this doesn’t always happen and a jury might not know a witness is not the most credible. A mandated hearing by a judge will offer accountability that isn’t currently present.

The legislation would also require the creation of a database when jailhouse witness testimony is used that will make it easier to track such testimony.

Every defendant deserves a chance at a fair trial where all evidence is revealed. Wrongful convictions ruin lives. People are separated from their families and when released from prison have to start their life anew. They can’t bring back the years they spent behind bars.

As proponents of the bill have pointed out, it could also save the state tens of millions of dollars in compensation costs to those who are wrongfully convicted. The exonerated deserve such payouts, but preventing these convictions in the first place would save money and prevent injustice.

Legislation introduced by Mr. Smith last year did not make it out of committee. We hope there is more success this year.

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Currently, those who lie get rewarded with leniency, while innocent victims who committed no crimes linger in prison. In what world is that fair?

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