Jailhouse informants have probably been around for as long as there have been jails and inmates willing to trade information for a favor or two — including more privileges or a shorter sentence.
“Incentivized informants” is the legal term of art, but too often they also have “a strong incentive to lie,” said Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director for the Innocence Project. That explains why, according to the project’s figures, 16 percent of DNA exonerations involved false testimony by informants. Broader studies of wrongful convictions put the figure as high as 46 percent.
Innocent people have spent decades in prison while the guilty remained free, and often the victims of those informants never see justice either — a lose-lose-lose for the criminal justice system.
Case in point: the 1974 conviction of Laurence Adams for the murder of a Boston subway porter. The prosecution’s star witnesses were Wyatt Moore, already facing felony charges, and his sister. They testified at trial that Adams had confessed his guilt to both of them. Moore was released from prison the day after Adams’s conviction. His sister later recanted her testimony, saying she just wanted to get her brother out of jail. Their stories were complete fabrications, but that would take three decades to prove. Adams was exonerated in 2004 and won a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Boston for $2.1 million.
Another recently exonerated Massachusetts man, Gary Cifizzari of Taunton, had been convicted of the 1979 rape and murder of his great aunt. The DNA evidence that helped free Cifizzari was matched to Michael J. Giroux, who in addition to murdering his landlord in 1991 turned out to be something of a serial snitch himself — not in Cifizzari’s case, but in a long list of others.
“This man became an arm of the police,” Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, told the Globe. In 1994, a state police trooper offered up Giroux as a possible informant to a Worcester police detective, noting, “He calls me every week.”
Giroux died a free man in 2014. There’s no telling how many innocent people he helped send to prison while avoiding accountability for murdering Cifizzari’s relative.
So how to weed out serial informants like Giroux? And how to give judges and juries the tools they need to evaluate testimony from informants who police and prosecutors are able to “incentivize” — whether currently in prison or not?
“Judges understand how this works, activists and lawyers understand it, everyone but jurors,” Feldman said. “It’s not always apparent to jurors that there’s a benefit [to the person testifying].”
A state bill filed by Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, and supported by the Innocence Project, would provide several significant guardrails around such testimony.
It would set up a kind of registry of jailhouse informants — a database that would list the criminal history of an informant, along with any “deals, promises, inducements or benefits” made by prosecutors now or “in the future.” A serial informant like Giroux would be suspect — at least by honest prosecutors and judges — fairly early on, rather than being passed around by police like a bowl of M&Ms.
The bill provides for “enhanced disclosure” of any inducements on the table. And informants would be subject to a pretrial reliability hearing, in much the same way certain expert witnesses are now.
“It’s ironic that actual experts are subject to more scrutiny than informants,” Feldman said.
A number of other states, most recently Connecticut, have adopted some variation of the law. Connecticut’s includes an informant-tracking system and pretrial reliability hearings.
In other jurisdictions, like Illinois and Orange County, Calif., such legal reforms followed notorious scandals involving informants. In Oklahoma and Florida, it took appellate court decisions to bring about changes to criminal procedure codes.
It shouldn’t take another scandal — surely that $2.1 million Boston had to pay out for the wrongful conviction of Adams would be lesson enough to spur action on Beacon Hill. Bringing more data transparency and rigor to such cases can only be good for the justice system.
Yes, lying jailhouse informants are a part of our history — a part that a modern criminal justice system can live without.
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