In more than 15% of cases of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, an incentivized informant testified against the defendant. Often, statements from people with motivating reasons to testify – particularly motives that are not disclosed to the jury – are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person.
People have been wrongfully convicted in cases in which snitches:
- 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.
Exonerations have shown that informants lie on the stand. 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 snitch testimony may be the only option.
In some cases, snitches or informants come forward voluntarily, often seeking deals or special treatment. But sometimes law enforcement officials seek out snitches and give them extensive background on cases — essentially feeding them the information they need to provide false testimony.
Incentivized informants continue to testify in courtrooms around the country today. In some cases without biological evidence, snitch testimony is the only evidence of guilt. Vital reforms are needed to ensure that these unreliable witnesses are not given undue weight by juries.
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 snitch testimony, and describes in detail how the use of snitch testimony contributed to the conviction of specific innocent defendants.
Unfortunately, procedures to determine the reliability of snitch testimony are only now being considered by lawmakers and the courts.