With the stroke of a pen, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to require prosecutors to track information on jailhouse witnesses with the signing of SB 1098.
The first-of-a-kind law will require that the state’s Office of Policy and Management Criminal Justice Division set up a system to track information on all potential jail houses that can be accessed by every prosecutor in the state.
“It’s important for prosecutors to have that information so they can assess whether or not this person is reliable,” said Michelle Feldman, State Campaign Director for the Innocence Project which helped draft the bill.
The new law is meant to add another layer of transparency in the use of testimony provided by jailhouse witnesses, Feldman said. “This is the first state in the nation that will have the information available for all prosecutors,” she said.
Supporters included Cheryl White-Mink who told the Judiciary Committee during a public hearing that her uncle Alfred Swinton served 19 years of a 60-year sentence for a murder that he didn’t commit.
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. Swinton was set free in May 2018 after 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 law, which was also supported by the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union and the Chief Public Defender, gives defense attorneys the right to request detailed information on a jailhouse witness and seek a hearing on the reliability of the testimony of “jailhouse witnesses” who would testify at trials in murder and sexual assault cases.
Prosecutors will now be required to provide the information on the witness’ 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 requesting the information.
If the defense attorney seeks a hearing on the witness, a review of the testimony and evidence, including whether it could have been obtained by means other than from the defendant, will now undergo the scrutiny of a judge before the witness could testify.
“Jailhouse informants have a strong motivation to lie so it’s important to have transparency at every level of the system,” Feldman said.
Prosecutors feared the law would open the door to have every potential jailhouse witness questioned by a judge on their reliability.
“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,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said in his remarks to the Judiciary Committee.
But the Innocence Project contends that the new law will help prevent cases like Swinton’s and that of Miguel Roman who spent 20 years in prison after being convicted of murdering his girlfriend. Roman’s conviction was largely based on a jailhouse witness who claimed that while Roman was being held awaiting trial, he confessed to the crime, according to the Innocence Project.
At Roman’s trial, the jailhouse witness denied receiving anything for his cooperation. But prosecutors did dismiss his larceny charges and recommended time served after the trial, the organization said.
Two decades later, DNA testing excluded Roman as the killer and matched a man named Pedro Miranda, who was also charged with the murder of two other women. The state of Connecticut agreed in 2016 to pay Roman $6 million in compensation, the Innocence Project said.
The law that was signed by Gov. Ned Lamont last week is part of the Innocence Project’s work in exonerating innocent people and then addressing the flaws in the system that led to their convictions, Feldman said.
“We don’t just exonerate people,” Feldman said. “We look at problems there are with cases and what laws we need to change to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”