Resources

  • SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
  • U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines on the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources
  • Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways, The New Yorker (2012) (article on the use of juvenile informants)

Recent Blog Posts

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Illinois legislature passes new informant reform

By Michelle Feldman

In April, the Illinois legislature passed new legislation that would require pre-trial reliability hearings and specific disclosure requirements before jailhouse informant testimony is admissible in the most serious criminal cases. Now Senate Bill 1830 is awaiting action by the governor.

Illinois has been on the forefront of safeguarding against wrongful convictions stemming from unreliable jailhouse informant testimony. Based on recommendations from former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment, the state passed a law in 2003 requiring pre-trial reliability hearings and specific disclosure requirements before jailhouse informant testimony was admissible in capital cases, which became moot when the death penalty was abolished in Illinois in 2011. SB 1830 would apply the same safeguards in murder, sexual assault and arson cases. Read more here from NPR.

Welcome legislative blogger Michelle Feldman

I am happy to announce that Michelle Feldman is joining the blog as co-curator of the legislation section.  Feldman is the Legislative Strategist at the Innocence Project and has been involved in numerous informant reform efforts across the country.  She is highly knowledgeable and will bring expertise and up-to-date insight to the blog.  We are lucky to have her!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nebraska considered jailhouse informant reform

Earlier this year, Nebraska introduced legislation that would have enhanced protections against unreliable jailhouse informants, including reliability hearings, enhanced disclosure requirements, and mechanisms to keep track of the government's use of such informants.  The text of the bill (which is currently on hold) is here; story in the Lincoln Journal Star is here

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The developing science of informant cognition

Behavioral psychologists have been studying the informant phenomenon, especially the thorny question of why jurors believe unreliable informants even when they know that the informants have strong incentives to fabricate evidence.  Some of those studies can be found here in the Resources & Scholarship section.

A group of researchers recently published this study finding that information from an informant can affect other witnesses in a case. Specifically, the study found that eyewitnesses who identified suspects in a line-up actually changed their identifications after learning that a jailhouse informant had implicated a different suspect.  Here is the abstract:

"Prior research has shown that primary confession evidence can alter eyewitnesses’ identifications and self-reported confidence. The present study investigated whether secondary confession evidence from a jailhouse informant could have the same effect. Participants (N = 368) watched a video of an armed robbery and made an identification decision from a photo lineup. Except for those in the no-feedback conditions, all participants then read that certain lineup members either confessed to the crime, denied involvement, or were implicated by a jailhouse informant. Jailhouse informant testimony implicating the identified lineup member led participants to have significantly higher confidence in their identification. In contrast, jailhouse informant testimony that implicated a lineup member other than the identified led participants to have significantly lower confidence in their initial identification, and 80% of these witnesses changed their identification. These results indicate that jailhouse informant testimony can influence eyewitnesses’ confidence and their identification decisions."

Preston M. Mote & Jeffrey S. Neuschatz & Brian H. Bornstein & Stacy A. Wetmore & Kylie N. Key, Secondary Confessions as Post-identification Feedback: How Jailhouse Informant Testimony Can Alter Eyewitnesses’ Identification Decisions, Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology (2018).

We already know that informant testimony can arise to bolster weak cases, providing corroboration for faulty forensic evidence or uncertain eyewitness identifications.  This new study suggests that in addition to bolstering, informant testimony can actually alter other witnesses' testimony. 

Test your knowledge of jailhouse snitches

The Orange County scandal has kept public attention focused on the jailhouse informant phenomenon.  This quiz published in The Marshall Project assembles some dramatic examples, and reminds us of the wide variety of benefits that informants receive, how little regulation the Supreme Court has imposed on the practice, and how easy it is for informants to collude with each other.