Editorial: Slow the parade of self-serving jailhouse informants

SHARE Editorial: Slow the parade of self-serving jailhouse informants
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Former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara leaves criminal courts, 26th Street and California Avenue July 29, 2013. | Sun-Times~Alex Wroblewski

Back when Illinois had a death penalty, prosecutors in a capital punishment case could not put a hinky witness on the stand — somebody who had an obvious motive to lie — until the judge held a “reliability hearing.”

The judge would consider, above all, whether the witness’ promised reward for testifying — an early release from prison, for example — stripped his testimony of all credibility and value.

EDITORIAL

Illinois no longer has a Death Row, but plenty of witnesses in major criminal trials still have reason to lie to save their own hide, and it would be naive to believe they don’t. For evidence of this, look no further than a report in Monday’s Sun-Times, by Andrew Schroedter of the Better Government Association, about a 1994 murder conviction that hinged on the uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informant. The witness has since recanted, and the case is under review.

A simple and obvious corrective to this problem would be to revise the state law that required reliability hearings in death penalty cases, making the hearings a standard tool for judges today in cases in which the defendant could be sentence to prison for many decades or life. Essentially, these would be the same crimes, such as murder, for which the defendant previously could have been sentenced to death.

As the BGA has reported, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has asked the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to review a number of criminal convictions, some dating back more than 20 years, that involved a now-retired Chicago Police Department detective, Reynaldo Guevara.

Guevara has been accused in court of railroading suspects, most of them Latino men. The city has paid nearly $20 million to investigate, defend and settle misconduct claims related to Guevara.

In the 1994 case, two Chicago men, Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano, were sentenced to 55 years for killing a Humboldt Park man. Weighing heavily in their conviction was the testimony of a jailhouse informant who received a reduced prison sentence in return for testifying. He has since said Guavara forced him to lie on the stand.

Courts have long permitted informants with something to gain to testify in criminal trials. The thinking is that finders of fact — jurors or a judge — can decide whether an informant is believable.

But when DNA testing came on the scene, it exonerated many prisoners who had been sent to prison on the word of “incentivized” informants – people who testified in exchange for some kind of benefit. Illinois reacted by requiring special “reliability hearings” before uncorroborated informant testimony could be used in death penalty cases.

Informants often have an incentive to help authorities with their testimony. They might have been promised lenient sentences for crimes they committed. If they’ve already been sent to jail, they might be promised an early release. They might have been told they’d go to jail themselves if they didn’t cooperate.

Police and prosecutors correctly point out that many of the witnesses they deal with — the kind of people who would be around a crime when it is occurring — are not stellar citizens. Today’s witness might have been yesterday’s suspect. Banning all uncorroborated informant testimony would not be wise.

But it would make sense, in major cases, to hold a reliability hearing at which a judge can determine whether anyone should believe such uncorroborated testimony, when it’s offered in exchange for something of value.

Illinois has a long list of exonerated people who went to prison on the word of witnesses who had something to gain. In the 1978 Ford Heights Four case, in which two innocent men were sentenced to die and two others went to prison, a witness testified for the prosecution in exchange for being released from jail. A parade of witnesses with special deals — deals whose existence were often denied by authorities — helped send Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez to Death Row for a 1985 murder. Both men later were exonerated.

In one of the cases recently turned over to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, a witness who testified against two men who have been in prison for 20 years said in an affidavit, “In exchange for my fabricated testimony, I was told by Guavara that my armed robbery cases would work out fine for me.”

Defenders of the current system argue that during a trial defense lawyers are free to challenge the credibility of witnesses. But 95 percent of cases are settled by plea bargains without an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. In many cases, the threat of testimony from an informant — whose incentive has not been disclosed — is enough to secure a guilty plea.

The purpose of a trial — or even a plea bargain — is to get at the truth. Fabricated informant testimony should have no place in that process.

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