Criminal Law

How the False Testimony of Snitches Results in Wrongful Convictions

In some criminal cases, the main evidence against the defendant is testimony by a police informant. This person is commonly referred to, fairly or unfairly, as a "snitch."

Unfortunately, in weighing this evidence, a jury may be unaware that a participating snitch:

  • Received favorable treatment or a reduced sentence in exchange for their testimony
  • Regularly acts as a jailhouse snitch by testifying in multiple criminal cases

In this respect, the snitch's testimony could be unreliable because it may be motivated by something other than the sheer desire to confess the truth about the accused.

As a result, countless wrongful convictions occur because of the testimony of snitches, sending innocent people to jail. While some win appeals and their release after a wrongful conviction, many others die in prison.

Jailhouse Informant Testimony Issues

Jailhouse snitches are people in prison who routinely testify or turn on others in a case. Whether their testimony is true doesn't always matter. Given the choice between potential incentives and/or punishment, jailhouse snitches are likely to follow law enforcement officials' leads and provide false testimony as requested.

While it can backfire and make conditions worse while in prison, the promise of better conditions or a lesser sentence is a strong incentive for jailhouse informants.

Incentives for a Snitch to Give False Testimony

Voluntary testimony that negatively implicates someone else is appealing when:

  • An inmate has little to no option for freedom because of a lengthy sentence
  • The snitch is facing stiff penalties as a result of a crime
  • The temptation of a lesser sentence and desperation for freedom prove too much

At this point, the snitch has nothing to lose. At worst they may not get the incentive they were promised. At best, they might receive:

  • A lighter or reduced sentence
  • More pleasant accommodations while incarcerated
  • Prison placement near family members

This all-too-common phenomenon of incentives in exchange for testimony can result in false testimony and wrongful convictions.

False Testimony by Snitches Results in Wrongful Convictions

There are many implications of wrongful convictions due to false testimony by snitches. Defendants convicted on the basis of false testimony may spend years or decades in prison.

"Snitch testimony" is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in murder cases where the convicted defendant went to death row.

A wrongful conviction of an innocent person obviously can have devastating results for the criminal justice system as a whole. It can have a potentially irreversible impact on the innocent defendant, who loses years of their life to incarceration or who the state executes. Fortunately, if you are the victim of a wrongful conviction and you successfully overturn your conviction and win your release, you can sue the state for financial compensation.

Juries Are Not Told About Informant Incentives

A jury considering the evidence in a criminal case may be totally unaware of any rewards that a snitch may receive from prosecutors in exchange for their testimony.

The jury will have no reason to suspect that the snitch has an alternate motive for their testimony if:

  • They appear to be credible during testimony
  • They give a relatively plausible explanation
  • No deals or incentives are revealed to the jury

If a court does examine the snitch's incentives, it is known as a reliability hearing. This hearing discusses the informant's promised incentives, reasons to lie, history working as an informant, and more. Lawyers for both sides can cross-examine and review the reliability of any informants.

Pressures by Law Enforcement Officials to Give Informant Testimony

On the other hand, corrupt police and prosecutors seeking evidence to support a conviction in a certain case approach and pressure snitches to provide the "right" testimony.

In some situations, the snitch receives extensive information about a particular criminal case so that their testimony will be more believable.

Police and prosecutors may offer some sort of incentive in exchange for testimony proving guilt or innocence, or threaten a jailhouse informant with harm or less favorable sentencing conditions if they do not help.

If someone chooses not to testify, whether their testimony would have been true or not, they can face worse conditions in prison. Being known as a snitch can be dangerous inside a prison.

Overturning Wrongful Convictions Based on a Snitch's False Testimony

If you or someone that you know has been wrongfully convicted due to false testimony by a snitch or informant, you should consult an attorney right away for help in appealing your conviction.

While you can immediately ask the trial judge to review your conviction for errors, there is no requirement to do so before filing an appeal.

The state court of appeals will review your conviction to determine if there were any errors. If a snitch's false testimony was the main basis for your conviction, you may have grounds for a successful appeal.

Even if the appellate court denies your appeal, you can further appeal your conviction to the state supreme court, or the highest appellate court in the state of your conviction, which will give you another chance of having your conviction overturned.