EDITORIAL: One way to stop sending innocent people to prison

SHARE EDITORIAL: One way to stop sending innocent people to prison
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Ronald Kitchen walks out of court in 2009 after prosecutors dropped charges against him and Marvin Reeves, who together were convicted in the 1988 drug-related murders of two women and three children, whose bodies were found in a burning home in the 6000 block of S. Campbell. (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)

Illinois has a long, troublesome record of sending innocent people to prison based on the testimony of prisoners who invent incriminating testimony in exchange for leniency or other favors. It’s a flaw in our justice system that cries out for reform.

This past spring, the Legislature passed a sensible bill that would require “reliability hearings” before so-called jailhouse snitch testimony could be used at trials involving some murder, sexual assault and arson cases. The hearings would be designed to weed out testimony from jailhouse informants whose stories don’t have any corroborating details. Prosecutors also would have to notify the defense about jailhouse informant testimony 30 days in advance and disclose whether informants have offered their testimony against other defendants in previous trials.

EDITORIAL

Unfortunately, Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill in July. The Legislature should overturn that action when it returns to Springfield for the veto session in November.

Often, jailhouse informant testimony emerges when a defendant is being held in jail awaiting trial. Suddenly, another prisoner claims to have heard the defendant make incriminating statements while both the defendant and informant were behind bars together. That helps prosecutors, who now have another witness to bolster their case. Afterward, the informant might quietly get a shorter sentence or preferential treatment in exchange for the testimony.

The motivation for falsely testifying is obvious.

Sometimes, an informant might concoct a story simply because authorities persuade him or her they have a chance to do something right for a change. Juries are not always told about any deal when they are trying to reach verdicts.

If a defense lawyer were to give a witness something of value in exchange for testimony, it would be an illegal bribe.

But prosecutors can often offer lighter sentences or better prison treatment. Who would be surprised if in return they get the testimony they need to bolster their case? In 2015, the National Registry of Exonerations found that the prosecutors were most likely to use jailhouse informants in the most severe crimes.

In case after case, jailhouse informant testimony ultimately has been proven to be false, but often too late to prevent an innocent person from spending years behind bars.

Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves — who eventually received certificates of innocence — spent years in prison partly because of testimony by a jailhouse informant who said Kitchen admitted to an arson-murder. Testimony from a jailhouse informant was instrumental in convicting Gary Gauger for murdering his parents and sending him to prison for years until he received a pardon based on innocence. The testimony of three jailhouse informants was used against Juan Rivera, who eventually was freed and received a certificate of innocence, also after years in prison.

According to the Illinois Innocence Project, just 17 cases in which jailhouse informants played a role cost Illinois more than $88 million in compensation. In 2005, TheNorthwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions reported false testimony from jailhouse informants was the leading contributor to exonerations in capital cases. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011.

Prisoners know how the game works. Robert Turner, who was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Bridget Drobney of Downers Grove, wrote a letter to authorities offering to testify against seven other defendants on Death Row.

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Sometimes, jailhouse informants might have reliable testimony, but often they don’t. That’s why hearings are needed to examine what the informants are saying and to look for evidence that indicates their stories are not simply yarns they are trading for better treatment.

Trials are supposed to be a search for the truth. Doubtful testimony from jailhouse informants that can’t be corroborated in any way undermines that mission.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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