Recent Blog Posts

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Massachusetts Supreme Court disapproves of prosecutorial rewards to witnesses

Two witnesses in Wayne Miranda's murder trial received $2000 each from the Chamber of Commerce because their testimony assisted in producing a guilty verdict. As the Boston Globe writes, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, while approving such witness reward programs generally, has ruled that prosecutors cannot participate in them or help witnesses get rewards when those rewards are contingent on convictions. Commonwealth v. Wayne Miranda, SJC-10568. From the Court's opinion:
We recognize that, to prove the crime charged, prosecutors often need to procure the cooperation and truthful information or testimony of reluctant witnesses. The interests of justice, however, are not well served when a witness's reward is contingent on the conviction of a defendant, rather than the provision of truthful information or testimony.
While the Massachusetts Supreme Court should be lauded for its ethical concern, its decision is somewhat ironic. Prosecutors routinely provide far greater benefits to criminal informant witnesses, in the form of liberty and leniency, than a few thousand dollars. In many jurisdictions, these rewards can be contigent on conviction. And even when the rewards are not expressly contingent on conviction, every attorney and informant knows that a witness in a successful conviction is more likely to get rewarded.
This is why Professor George Harris [author of Testimony for Sale: The Law and Ethics of Snitches and Experts, 28 Pepp. L. Rev. 1 (2000)], and I have recommended leveling the playing field by creating defense informants, i.e. rewards for informants who come forward with information that might help the defense rather than the prosecution. As it currently stands, an offender with information helpful to the defense cannot expect any benefits--only the government can give those. This lopsided arrangement is, as the Massachusetts Supreme Court pointed out, not in the interests of accuracy or justice.