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Jailhouse informants and the Brady rule

Prosecutors in Wyoming and around the country are required to turn potentially exculpatory evidence and information over to criminal defendants and their attorneys, but may civil rights advocacy groups say that new laws are required to clarify the protections provided by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland. One of the most contentious Brady issues is the value and admissibility of testimony provided by jailhouse informants who often lie to secure reduced sentences or preferential treatment.

The Innocence Project says that almost 20% of the 365 prisoners they have exonerated were incarcerated at least in part due to the false testimony of a jailhouse informant. The false convictions of two men who spent decades behind bars prompted lawmakers in Connecticut to pass a law recently that allows defense attorneys to call for a pretrial hearing to assess the reliability of jailhouse informants. The law also establishes a database to keep track of this kind of evidence and the benefits that were offered in exchange for it.

The Brady ruling requires prosecutors to turn over information that could impeach the credibility of their witnesses, but this does not always happen with jailhouse informants. Both of the informants that gave evidence against the wrongly convicted Connecticut men said that they had not been offered anything for testifying. However, one of them was released from prison early and a number of charges against the other were dismissed.

Information provided by jailhouse informants is especially common in cases involving drug crimes. When prosecutors do not provide details about the concessions that were granted in return for this testimony, experienced criminal defense attorneys may argue that constitutional rights guaranteeing due process under the law have been violated. When this comes to light after an individual has been convicted, an appeals court might set the verdict aside and order a new trial.

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