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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Texas considers banning informant testimony in capital cases

Several states are considering new legislation to regulate informant use.  In Texas, HB 564 would ban the use of compensated criminal witnesses in death penalty cases altogether.  The bill provides that the "testimony of an informant or of an alleged accomplice of the defendant is not admissible if the testimony is given in exchange for a grant or promise by the attorney representing the state or by another of immunity from prosecution, reduction of sentence, or any other form of leniency or special treatment."  Full story at The Intercept here.  Radley Balko at the Washington Post calls the bill a "significant first step" in recognizing the inherent unreliability of informants.  As Balko, who has written about informant debacles before, puts it:

"The whole concept of jailhouse informants defies credulity. The very idea that people regularly confess to crimes that could put them in prison for decades or possibly even get them executed to someone they just met in a jail cell and have known for all of a few hours is and has always been preposterous. Not to mention the fact that these are people whose word prosecutors wouldn’t trust under just about any other circumstance."

In North Carolina, HB 700--which did not pass--would have created comprehensive regulation of jailhouse informants, including corroboration requirements, enhanced discovery, jury instructions, and data collection.  Story here.  An interesting feature of this bill was that it would have created a "rebuttable presumption of inadmissibility," placing the burden on the government to show that these risky witnesses should nevertheless be permitted to testify.