HARTFORD, CT — It was casual conversation with another inmate and a pack of “Cold Case” playing cards that eventually led to the arrest of William Devin Howell, who is now believed to be the state’s most prolific serial killer.

The state’s top prosecutors now fear that SB 1098, a bill proposed by the Connecticut Innocence Project and taken up by the Judiciary Committee, would limit the testimony of “jailhouse witnesses” by requiring prosecutors to demonstrate that the evidence provided is reliable.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 SB 1098: An Act Concerning The Testimony Of Jailhouse Witnesses

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The bill is meant to add safeguards against the use of “unreliable testimony,” which Cheryl White-Mink said led to the wrongful conviction of her uncle, Alfred Swinton.

Swinton was convicted in 2001 of murdering Carla Terry, a woman he knew, in part based on the testimony of a jailhouse witness who lied, White-Mink said Monday in her remarks to the Judiciary Committee. Swinton was set free in March 2018 after serving 18 years of a 60-year sentence for Terry’s death following a re-examination of DNA evidence in the case.

“At trial the jailhouse witness denied getting a deal in exchange for his testimony, but, in fact, ultimately obtained early release from prison,” White-Mink said.

The man also had testified in other cases — a fact that was never brought up in court, she said. “It was far too easy for this jailhouse witness to lie and help send an innocent man to prison in his efforts to obtain leniency in his case,” White-Minks said.

The bill, which also is supported by the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union and the Chief Public Defender, would allow defense attorneys to seek a hearing on the reliability of the testimony of “jailhouse witnesses” who would testify at a trial.

Prosecutors would be required to provide detailed information on the witness’s criminal background, including any pending cases, any other cases during which they testified and what benefits they received for testifying within 45 days of a defense attorney’s request.

The bill relates to only murder and sexual assault cases that are slated to go to trial, said Michelle Feldman, State Campaigns Director for the Innocence Project.

A review of the testimony and evidence, including whether it could have been obtained by means other than from the defendant, would also undergo the scrutiny of a judge.

“Before an expert witness can testify, the judge holds a pre-trial reliability hearing, Feldman said. “A judge should have the same ability to scrutinize the reliability of jailhouse witnesses.”

The prosecutor would have to show by a “preponderance of the evidence,” that the jailhouse witness’s testimony was reliable or a judge would not allow the testimony to be admitted.

The purpose of the law is to protect against wrongful convictions and help the state maintain rightful convictions, Feldman said.

“If there is a jailhouse witness with a reliability problem, it will come to light,” Feldman said. “It protects the innocent and ensures the state has credible convictions.”

The prosecutor would have to show by a “preponderance of the evidence,” that the jailhouse witness’s testimony was reliable or a judge would not allow the testimony to be admitted.

The bill as proposed would likely impact any criminal prosecution that relied on a jailhouse witness for at least part of the evidence, said Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor.

“An effect of this is that there would be hearings well in advance of a trial in order to make a determination of their admissibility as a witness,” Lawlor said.

Juries already receive instructions on how to weigh evidence provided by jailhouse witnesses, and defense attorneys can call expert witnesses to refute the testimony, Lawlor said. “We already have rules in place that address the issue,” he said.

At least three “jailhouse witnesses” were involved in shaping the serial murder case against Howell, who was serving a 15-year sentence in the death and disappearance of Nilsa Arizmendi, a woman who was last seen with him in 2003. Her body had never been found.

New Britain police had been trying for nearly four years to identify the remains of three women found behind a Hartford Road strip mall in 2007 when the inmate came forward in 2011. He told investigators that Howell had pointed to a Cold Case playing card seeking information on the deaths of the women and admitted it was “his work.”

The Cold Case playing cards are the only decks of cards used in Connecticut prisons. Each card features a cold case that police are hoping solve. The theory behind the cards is that inmates chat while playing, which might lead to tips on the unsolved cases. The cards have generated 3,000 phone calls, leading to 800 tips and more than a dozen convictions, including Howell’s, officials within the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office said.

Another inmate who roomed with Howell in a correctional facility gave investigators a detailed map of where Arizmendi could be found and where Howell had buried three additional people who also went missing in 2003. Based on the information, investigators located Arizmendi and the others in 2015 behind the same strip mall where police had found the remains of the three women in 2007.

Howell pleaded guilty to the six murders and was sentenced in 2017 to 360 years in prison. He is believed to be the state’s most prolific serial killer based on the number of victims he killed in Connecticut. Prior to his arrest in 2015 for the six murders, he was slated to finish his 15-year sentence in Arizmendi’s disappearance.

The bill as proposed would circumvent the jury process, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane told the Judiciary Committee on Monday. “So long as a jailhouse informant is competent and, therefore, meets the minimum standard of credibility, the ultimate determination regarding the reliability of his testimony is the exclusive province of a jury, the body that forms the cornerstone of our criminal justice system,” Kane said.

The bill would also require “mini” hearings during the pre-trial process, said Kane, who is recommending that the Judiciary Committee take no further action on the bill.

“The bill embodies a presumption that a jury of the defendant’s peers cannot be trusted to carefully consider and assess all of the testimony that is presented to it, including that which is given by a witness whose testimonial motivations may be called into question,” Kane said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Michelle Feldman of the Connecticut Innocence Project.