Two more innocent men have been freed from death row. Just last week, Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell became the 137th and 138th people to be exonerated from death row. The two men were convicted of a drive-by shooting in 1993 based on the testimony of an in-custody informant who had been offered leniency from the prosecution. The prosecutors at trial withheld information about this plea-deal from the defense, which resulted in a new trial. All charges against the two men have now been dropped because of the unreliability of the in-custody informant’s testimony, the only evidence that linked Douglas and Powell to the crime.
These exonerations highlight the power prosecutors have in securing convictions by utilizing in-custody informant testimony, even when no physical evidence links a defendant to the crime. Testimony by in-custody informants or "jailhouse snitches" as they are often referred, is a leading cause of wrongful convictions.
With little to lose, jailhouse snitches have great incentives to provide false information to prosecutors in exchange for leniency or other forms of compensation. Deals that are made between prosecutors and jailhouse snitches do not often come to light when a jury has to weigh the evidence is a case.
The exonerations of Douglas and Powell demonstrate, yet again, the very real threat of false testimony and the strong need for corroborating evidence to ensure that accurate and credible testimony is presented to juries in criminal trials. The fairness and accuracy of our justice system is at stake when jurisdictions do not require mandatory, pre-trial disclosures of all incentives given to in-custody informant witnesses, as recommended in In-custody Informant Testimony: A Policy Review.
Unfortunately, Douglas and Powell are not alone in their experiences with a prosecution that withheld important evidence. Such acts are the most common type of prosecutorial misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions. The flawed trial that led to the wrongful convictions and death sentences of Douglas and Powell, along with the cases of the 136 death row exonerees before them, again highlight the urgent need for reform to address the common causes that lead to wrongful convictions. As exonerations continue to occur throughout the country, it is abundantly clear reform is needed to stem the tide of wrongful convictions and begin to restore credibility, fairness, and accuracy to our criminal justice system.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.