30 Years of Jailhouse Snitch Scandals

More than 140 people have been exonerated in murder cases involving jailhouse informant testimony since the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on its constitutionality in 1966. Yet informant testimony is still allowed nationwide, and the limited reforms that exist have yet to prove effective.

1989

scandal
Prolific jailhouse informant Leslie Vernon White appears on “60 Minutes” and demonstrates on camera how he fabricates testimony. The previous year, the Los Angeles Times had written about White demonstrating to law enforcement how he could manufacture testimony, prompting legal groups in California to call for a grand jury to investigate. Defense attorneys compiled a list of over 200 cases in the preceding 10 years in which jailhouse informants testified.
exonerations
Between 1980 and 1989, 49 people nationwide are wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry only logs individuals who have been exonerated, making this likely only a fraction of the overall number of people who have been wrongly convicted in such cases.

1990

scandal
A California grand jury report blasts the use of jailhouse informants by prosecutors and police. It calls for sweeping reforms, including the creation of a centralized database of informants that would list any benefits they received, the number of times they testified and all favorable actions taken on their behalf. The reforms are not implemented.
exonerations
Between 1990 and 1999, 53 people are wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

2000

reform
An Oklahoma appeals court institutes new rules for jailhouse informant testimony that require prosecutors to disclose key facts before trial: an informant’s full criminal history, any promises made in exchange for the testimony, other cases in which the informant testified and any recantations the informant has made. The court also mandated jury instructions on how to weigh the reliability of informant testimony.
exonerations
Between 2000 and 2009, 30 people are wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

2004

scandal
The Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law releases a report titled “The Snitch System,” which documents the toll of false informant testimony. The report claims that cases involving informants — many of them jailhouse snitches — were responsible for 45.9% of death penalty exonerations since the punishment was reinstated in the 1970s.

2010

exonerations
Since 2010, at least five people have been wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Fewer wrongful convictions have surfaced in this decade compared with previous ones because it can take years, and even decades, for wrongful convictions to come to light. Experts say this number will likely grow in the years to come.

2011

reform
California passes a law that says that the uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informant can't be used against a defendant at trial. A court later weakens these protections by saying accomplices and informants may corroborate each others’ accounts.

2012

scandal
The Florida Innocence Commission recommends providing jurors with instructions on how to weigh the reliability of informant testimony and other reforms, such as clarifying disclosure rules.

2014

scandal
A public defender in a high-profile murder case in Orange County, California, claims that his client’s constitutional rights were violated through the use of a long-standing jailhouse informant program. Orange County’s top prosecutors and law-enforcement officials are implicated, and according to a pending ACLU lawsuit against the county district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department, as many as 140 cases may be affected. Other murder cases are retried as a result.
reform
The Florida Supreme Court requires prosecutors to disclose a summary of jailhouse informants’ criminal histories; any previous history as an informant; and the compensation they expect to receive.

2017

scandal
An Orange County, California, grand jury asserts that the existence of an organized informant program run by the DA’s office and sheriff’s department “does not stand up to factual validation.” While it acknowledges wrongdoing in individual cases, its report dismisses claims that there was any sort of organized jailhouse informant program in place.
reform
Texas passes a law requiring prosecutors to track informant testimony and disclose any benefits the informants received, such as compensation and sentence reductions.

2018

reform
Illinois passes a law requiring pretrial reliability hearings for jailhouse informants testifying in murder, arson and sexual assualt cases. It also includes other disclosure requirements.

2019

scandal
The California Attorney General’s Office closes its investigation into the Orange County jailhouse informant scandal. No one is publicly disciplined.
reform
Nebraska enacts legislation mandating that defense attorneys be notified of an informant's criminal history, any benefits they will receive, any past history as an informant and any recantations.
reform
Twenty-nine years after a Los Angeles County grand jury recommended the creation of a centralized database to track jailhouse informants, Connecticut — not California — passes such a law.

30 Years of Jailhouse Snitch Scandals

More than 140 people have been exonerated in murder cases involving jailhouse informant testimony since the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on its constitutionality in 1966. Yet informant testimony is still allowed nationwide, and the limited reforms that exist have yet to prove effective. Related Story →

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1989

scandal
Prolific jailhouse informant Leslie Vernon White appears on “60 Minutes” and demonstrates on camera how he fabricates testimony. The previous year, the Los Angeles Times had written about White demonstrating to law enforcement how he could manufacture testimony, prompting legal groups in California to call for a grand jury to investigate. Defense attorneys compiled a list of over 200 cases in the preceding 10 years in which jailhouse informants testified.
exonerations
Between 1980 and 1989, 49 people nationwide are wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry only logs individuals who have been exonerated, making this likely only a fraction of the overall number of people who have been wrongly convicted in such cases.

1990

scandal
A California grand jury report blasts the use of jailhouse informants by prosecutors and police. It calls for sweeping reforms, including the creation of a centralized database of informants that would list any benefits they received, the number of times they testified and all favorable actions taken on their behalf. The reforms are not implemented.
exonerations
Between 1990 and 1999, 53 people are wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

1994

Among the Released

1999

Among the Released
scandal
The dangers of jailhouse informant testimony are highlighted as part of a Chicago Tribune series on Illinois’ death penalty. Reporters spotlight jailhouse informant Tommy Dye, a known liar whose testimony helped put an ex-Chicago police officer on death row. The officer was later exonerated when Dye refused to testify at a retrial. The Tribune found that at least 46 inmates were on Illinois’ death row because of cases that involved jailhouse informant testimony.

2000

reform
An Oklahoma appeals court institutes new rules for jailhouse informant testimony that require prosecutors to disclose key facts before trial: an informant’s full criminal history, any promises made in exchange for the testimony, other cases in which the informant testified and any recantations the informant has made. The court also mandated jury instructions on how to weigh the reliability of informant testimony.
exonerations
Between 2000 and 2009, 30 people are wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

2003

reform
Illinois adopts vast death penalty reform laws, including one requiring pretrial reliability hearings for jailhouse informants testifying in death penalty cases. The reforms only apply to death penalty cases, allowing informants to testify wihtout such hearings in other serious cases.
Among the Released

2004

scandal
The Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law releases a report titled “The Snitch System,” which documents the toll of false informant testimony. The report claims that cases involving informants — many of them jailhouse snitches — were responsible for 45.9% of death penalty exonerations since the punishment was reinstated in the 1970s.
scandal
Cameron Todd Willingham is executed in Texas for the 1991 deaths of his three young children, who perished in a house fire. Jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who testified that Willingham confessed to him, later recants his testimony.
Among the Released
  • Convicted

    1990

    Sentence

    Life

    State

    California

2008

Among the Released

2010

exonerations
Since 2010, at least five people have been wrongfully convicted of murder in cases in which jailhouse informants played a role, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Fewer wrongful convictions have surfaced in this decade compared with previous ones because it can take years, and even decades, for wrongful convictions to come to light. Experts say this number will likely grow in the years to come.

2011

reform
California passes a law that says that the uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informant can't be used against a defendant at trial. A court later weakens these protections by saying accomplices and informants may corroborate each others’ accounts.

2012

scandal
The Florida Innocence Commission recommends providing jurors with instructions on how to weigh the reliability of informant testimony and other reforms, such as clarifying disclosure rules.
Among the Released
  • Convicted

    2009

    Sentence

    Life without parole

    State

    Oklahoma

2013

Among the Released

2014

Among the Released
scandal
A public defender in a high-profile murder case in Orange County, California, claims that his client’s constitutional rights were violated through the use of a long-standing jailhouse informant program. Orange County’s top prosecutors and law-enforcement officials are implicated, and according to a pending ACLU lawsuit against the county district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department, as many as 140 cases may be affected. Other murder cases are retried as a result.
reform
The Florida Supreme Court requires prosecutors to disclose a summary of jailhouse informants’ criminal histories; any previous history as an informant; and the compensation they expect to receive.

2016

Among the Released

2017

scandal
An Orange County, California, grand jury asserts that the existence of an organized informant program run by the DA’s office and sheriff’s department “does not stand up to factual validation.” While it acknowledges wrongdoing in individual cases, its report dismisses claims that there was any sort of organized jailhouse informant program in place.
reform
Texas passes a law requiring prosecutors to track informant testimony and disclose any benefits the informants received, such as compensation and sentence reductions.

2018

Among the Released
reform
Illinois passes a law requiring pretrial reliability hearings for jailhouse informants testifying in murder, arson and sexual assualt cases. It also includes other disclosure requirements.

2019

scandal
The California Attorney General’s Office closes its investigation into the Orange County jailhouse informant scandal. No one is publicly disciplined.
reform
Nebraska enacts legislation mandating that defense attorneys be notified of an informant's criminal history, any benefits they will receive, any past history as an informant and any recantations.
reform
Twenty-nine years after a Los Angeles County grand jury recommended the creation of a centralized database to track jailhouse informants, Connecticut — not California — passes such a law.

Source: ProPublica research, The National Registry of Exonerations

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