A Sample Case
NCIP exoneree Obie Anthony III spent 17 years in prison for a wrongful conviction involving the use of an informant. In 1995, Mr. Anthony was convicted of murder and attempted robbery. There was no physical evidence connecting Anthony to the murder. Prosecutors relied on the testimony of John Jones, a convicted killer and pimp who ran a house of prostitution near the crime scene, and claimed to have seen the shooter. In exchange for his testimony incriminating Anthony, Jones received favorable treatment by the prosecutor on Jones’ own pimping and pandering charge. At trial, when Jones was asked whether he received any benefits for his testimony, Jones perjured himself by saying he was not receiving any benefits. The prosecutor’s office was aware or should have been aware that Jones had presented perjured testimony, but the prosecutor did not inform the court or the defense. Anthony’s conviction was vacated on September 30, 2011 after a finding of false testimony (by informant Jones), ineffective assistance of counsel, and prosecutorial misconduct (for omitting disclosure of the known perjury by informant Jones).
There is currently little oversight of the use of informant testimony. The Innocence Project recommends videotaping informant statements to document the process of collecting those statements and to reduce the likelihood that those statements will be contaminated by outside information.2 Informant statements should also be assessed in pre-trial hearings for reliability, and law enforcement should keep lists of informants so that, before using their testimony, prosecutors and police are aware of informants’ activities. In addition, informant testimony should be corroborated by other evidence connecting the defendant with the crime.
The Orange County, California district attorney’s office has drawn considerable public attention recently for its misuse of jailhouse informants. A special committee of legal experts assigned to assess the problem found that a failure of leadership at the agency was a key factor in the mishandling of jailhouse informants. The committee in its December 2015 report also recommended better monitoring of cases and prosecutor performance measures that emphasize seeking justice over seeking convictions.³
Limited public funds for defense counsel can result in overburdened public defenders with inadequate resources to do their jobs fully. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, in its 2008 report, emphasized that many of the other causes of wrongful conviction could be avoided if defense counsel had the resources to zealously and competently investigate, prepare for and try each case. This report calls for oversight organizations to ensure high-quality public defense and for increased funding for defense services.³
¹ Center on Wrongful Convictions. The Snitch System. Chicago, IL: Northwestern University School of Law, 2004.
² See The Use of Incentivized Testimony. Available at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction/IncentivizedTestimonyFactSheet.pdf.
³ Orange County District Attorney Informant Policies & Practices Evaluation Committee Report, December 30, 2015. Available at: http://documents.latimes.com/orange-county-district-attorney-report/.