Innocent Although "Proven" Guilty

September 29, 2008
/ Author: Rick

Governor Schwarzenegger today vetoed, among other anti-crime bills, a bill which would have required corroborating evidence for the testimony of jailhouse snitches.

Has the Governor gone soft on crime?

Not infrequently, a case will come to trial which is, shall we say, “lacking in evidence or witnesses.”  When this happens, the prosecution has numerous other “tools” to assist them in making up for the missing evidence.

More often than not, the “tool” will be another prisoner.  A “jailhouse snitch.”

Jailhouse snitches are always, of course, acting out of the goodness of their hearts.  Their compassion for “victims” and their sense of duty and justice is so strong that you can’t help but wonder how they ended up in jail in the first place.  Their trustworthiness, gregariousness, charm, and suaveness are so apparent that every real criminal who comes near them is compelled to confess their darkest secrets.

So it is perhaps surprising for sane people to realize that,

In more than 15% of cases of wrongful conviction overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse snitch testified against the defendant. Often, statements from people with incentives to testify – particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury – are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person.  (“Understand the Causes: Informants/Snitches”, Innocence Project.)

Fortunately for California, Governor Schwarzenegger is a maverick who refuses to be counted among the sane.

Hotly debated legislation by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) to prohibit convictions based on the uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informant also fell by the wayside. Schwarzenegger explained his veto of SB 1589 by saying that the testimony of in-custody informants is rarely used and that current laws “provide adequate safeguards against its misuse.” (Nancy Vogel, “Schwarzenegger vetoes cosmetic surgery bill” (September 29, 2008) Los Angeles Times.)

Assuming the Governor is correct, this shows just how great the need for SB 1589 is.

Think about it.  According to the Governor, prosecutors seldom secure succor from such snitches.  If that’s true, then SB 1589 would not impact very many cases.  On the other hand, as noted, these “rare” cases result in a substantial number of false convictions.

Governor Schwarzenegger disingenuously states that,

[T]he evaluation of the credibliity of a witness has always been uniquely within the province of the jury.  This bill would usurp the juries’ function by fixing in statute a rule that all in-custody informants have lied before the fact.  (Governor Schwarzeneggar’s letter (Update 2015: link disappeared) to the California State Senate vetoing SB 1589.)

That’s not what SB 1589 stated. The bill simply required that in order to obtain a conviction based on the testimony of in-custody informants, there must be corroboration.  A similar rule, which has existed for hundreds of years, “usurps the juries’ function” when it comes to uncorroborated confessions.  It’s called “corpus delicti.” The impetus for that rule, like SB 1589, came after several innocent people were convicted (and executed) for the murders of missing people who later turned out to be very much alive.  (David A. Moran, “In Defense of the Corpus Delicti Rule” (2003) Ohio State Law Journal, pp. 826-827.)

Sadly, we are speedily slipping back to those days.  The rights of the accused are most definitely not in vogue.  But isn’t it about time the pendulum swung back the other way a bit?  There have been 220 exonerations by DNA evidence since 1989.  A wrongly-convicted man in Dallas, Texas, recently became the twentieth person to be exonerated by DNA in that county since 2001.  That’s just one jurisdiction!  Unfortunately, not every case involves DNA. If you count exonerations by other means, there are 360 exonerations since the year 2000 in the United states; that’s 360 we know were innocent, but convicted!

Isn’t it time to return to some of the common sense safeguards our ancestors embraced?  Isn’t it time to stop being soft on those who work to falsely convict the innocent amongst us?  Making convictions easier means making it easier to convict innocent people.

It’s as simple — as easy — as that.

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