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June 15, 2014
SAs must disclose details about ‘informant witnesses’

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Because of the high incidence of jailhouse snitch testimony resulting in wrongful convictions, the Florida Supreme Court, on its own motion, followed recommendations of the Florida Innocence Commission and amended a discovery rule.

The per curiam opinion on May 29 in case SC13-1541 amends Rule 3.220 to include “informant witnesses” — whether in custody or not — in the category of witnesses prosecutors must disclose to the defense, as well as requiring them to disclose certain information, including:

* The substance of any statement allegedly made by the defendant about which the informant witness may testify;

* A summary of the informant witness’ criminal history;

* The time and place under which the defendant’s alleged statement was made;

* Whether the informant witness has received or expects to receive anything in exchange for the testimony; and

* The informant witness’ prior history of cooperation, in return to any benefit, that is known to the prosecutor.

Both the Florida Supreme Court’s Criminal Court Steering Committee and the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee said the amendments were unnecessary.

“We disagree with the Steering Committee and the Rules Committee. We agree with the Commission that Rule 3.220 should be amended to include more detailed disclosure requirements with respect to informant witnesses, because informant witnesses are not currently specifically treated under the rule and they constitute the basis for many wrongful convictions,” the justices unanimously agreed.

“According to the Innocence Project, an in-custody informant (‘jailhouse informant’) testified in over 15 percent of wrongful conviction cases later overturned through DNA testing,” the Florida Innocence Commission wrote in its final report issued on June 25, 2012, which the justices quoted in a footnote.

“Of the exonerees released from death row, 45.9 percent were convicted, in part, due to false informant testimony. This makes fabricated testimony a leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Further studies have shown that informant perjury was a factor in nearly 50 percent of wrongful murder convictions.”

[Revised: 11-21-2014]