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Unreliable witnesses

A new California law will make it impossible for innocent people to go to prison based on unsupported testimony from jailhouse snitches.

August 11, 2011

Starting next year, California prosecutors can no longer win convictions in cases that rely solely on the uncorroborated testimony of jailhouse informants. That requirement — imposed by a bill, SB 687, that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this month — isn't groundbreaking, considering that more than a dozen other states already have similar laws. But it's an important step forward for California.

A series of articles in The Times and a 1990 grand jury report revealed that jailhouse informants were routinely granted favors or given money by prosecutors for what turned out to be false testimony. Dozens of innocent people were sent to prison in the 1980s based on unsupported testimony from snitches. Some convictions were later overturned, but not before many of those wrongly imprisoned spent years behind bars.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice recommended in 2008 that uncorroborated testimony by jailhouse informants be barred, and some district attorneys moved quickly to set their own restrictions. Other prosecutors, concerned that such rules would make it harder to win convictions, argued that they weren't necessary — judges were already required to instruct jurors to consider inmates' testimony cautiously. Responding to that faction's concerns, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed bills to make reforms.

The reality is that SB 687 won't bar prosecutors from using informants, nor will it strip courts of judicial discretion. The Legislature already has authority to limit the kinds of evidence that can be used in court; for example, it has made polygraph tests inadmissible. This measure is no different.

The new law will, however, require district attorneys to present additional evidence to support jailhouse informant testimony. As Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has repeatedly said, prosecutors should be wary of any testimony that can't be corroborated.

The restriction on jailhouse informant testimony is a good start, but more ought to be done to fix systemic problems that have resulted in miscarriages of justice. We already have a road map. The commission's 2008 report provided common-sense recommendations, such as requiring police to record interrogations of suspects in cases of serious felonies. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill to carry out another of the report's suggestions: establishing a group of experts to help improve the reliability of eyewitness identifications.

Some may argue that the state's financial troubles leave it barely able to fund schools, let alone finance programs to protect those who stand accused of crimes. But failing to prevent innocent people from going to jail is too expensive a proposition.

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