Each man featured here was wrongly convicted, in part, on the word of a jailhouse informant. Each served years, even decades in prison. And in each case, the information the snitch gave eventually proved false.
Nine of the men pictured here were condemned to what amounted to a life sentence. One man was sentenced to death.
Their cases afford a rare opportunity not only to see the human cost of jailhouse informant testimony that is false or concocted, but to see how widespread prosecutors’ reliance on these witnesses is. These exonerees hail from all across the
country: from California to Kentucky, Illinois to Pennsylvania. They come from big cities and small towns. They are black, white and Latino. Their cases span four decades — dating back as far as 1982, and ending in an exoneration as recently
as last year.
Despite these cases, and a spate of other wrongful convictions that have come to light in recent years, jailhouse informant testimony remains an entrenched part of criminal prosecutions around the country and one of the leading causes of
“Jailhouse informants comprise the most deceitful and deceptive group of witnesses known to frequent the courts,” concluded a high-profile 2001 judicial inquiry into the wrongful conviction of a Canadian man named Thomas
Sophonow. “Usually their presence as witnesses signals the end of any hope of providing a fair trial.”
Their unreliability is rooted in a curious fact of the criminal justice system: The state is allowed to offer extraordinary benefits to people behind bars if they offer testimony that is favorable to the state’s case. These rewards may
include reduced sentences, the dismissal of charges and even cash payments. Or the rewards may be far more modest. In one case featured below, a jailhouse snitch said he received just $25 and a pack of cigarettes for offering false
Because benefits are often conferred after a case goes to trial, prosecutors can assure jurors that no promises have been made. As ProPublica
and The New York Times Magazine reported in December, Florida prosecutors repeatedly used a prolific jailhouse informant to help secure convictions, and even death sentences. Prosecutors told jurors they had not promised him anything in
return, then gave him break after break after he testified, allowing him to be released from jail and to do more harm.
Rarely is anyone held to account when a jailhouse informant’s testimony later proves to be false. In Orange County, California, where an ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal has implicated top prosecutors and law enforcement officials — and
tainted at least 140 cases, according to a pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union — no one has yet been prosecuted
or disciplined for misconduct.
I spoke to the exonerees below about the experience of having their lives destroyed by a system that incentivizes jailhouse informants to lie. Many of these wrongfully convicted men lay the blame not on the informants themselves, but on the
prosecutors and detectives who continue to rely on snitch testimony to make their cases, sending potentially innocent men and women to prison.