Buting ,Williams & Stilling ,S.C. | A Criminal Defense Law Firm

Call Today for a FREE Consultation


Jailhouse informants lie. Should they be allowed to testify?

by | Oct 2, 2019 | Criminal Defense

A jailhouse informant is rarely someone who just wants to help. Jails and prisons have a strong anti-snitching culture, so passing along information to prosecutors is a choice that could get you in serious trouble. People don’t inform on other prisoners to be solid citizens; they do it to get a break on their sentences.

As long as informants are offered a break for snitching, there will always be a strong incentive to say whatever the prosecutor wants to hear. 

The United States Supreme Court has termed the use of jailhouse informants a “dirty business,” and therefore allows broad cross-examination and special cautionary jury instructions. But those remedies are often inadequate.

According to the Innocence Project, almost one in every five people who has been exonerated by DNA evidence was convicted based in part on a jailhouse informant.

But prosecutors insist that they get quality information from jailhouse informants that bring perpetrators to justice. Who decides whether they are credible and should be allowed to testify? And what information should be provided to the defense to give the defendant the opportunity to fully cross-examine the informant?

States requiring tracking, disclosure and evaluation

Several states have recently adopted new laws to rein in the irresponsible use of jailhouse informants. Mostly, they clarify that evidence about a jailhouse informant’s credibility must be turned over to the defense, along with information about what the informant is getting in return for their testimony.

Connecticut, Oklahoma, Utah and California additionally require jurors to be instructed to scrutinize the testimony of jailhouse informants.

Illinois has gone further than most. In November, lawmakers there overrode the governor’s veto to adopt a new rule that, if requested by the defense, judges must hold a pretrial inquiry into the veracity of the informant. If the informant is found not to be credible, their testimony won’t be allowed at trial.

25 years lost to a lying jailhouse snitch

One of the advocates for Illinois’ new law was exoneree James Kluppelberg. He was convicted, based primarily on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, of setting a fire in 1984 that killed a woman and her five children. Later, the informant recanted the story, admitting that he had made it up in order to reduce his prison sentence.

“I lost 25 years of my life because of his testimony,” Kluppelberg told the Associated Press. “I didn’t get to see my three children grow up. I did not get to go to my mother’s funeral. I did not get to see my sisters grow up. All these things were stolen from me.”

Even prosecutors admit they are skeptical of jailhouse informants, but they continue to use them with devastating results. It’s time for more states to recognize that their testimony is highly suspect, at best.

Practice Areas

“I just want to say thank you for the outstanding work you have done for him and let you know how much we appreciate the time and attention you gave to his case. We are obviously overjoyed by today’s dismissal!” (Child pornography case dismissed after motion to suppress was granted)”

“After having had time to exhale, we thank each one of you and all the others who contributed to the exemplary Supreme Court presentation. We are proud of your efforts on our behalf and, equally important, on behalf of the many present and future defendants statewide.” (Client’s comment after Supreme Court oral argument)

“Thank you. Thank you. I am so pleased to hear that we won. It doesn’t seem that it was even a close call. I appreciate your efforts.” (Oconto County defendant after Buting, Williams & Stilling got his prison sentence overturned in the court of appeals) ”

“Your time and advice was appreciated more than words can express at a time when we really needed someone to guide us.” (Client)

“The outcome was amazing, one unavailable even under identical circumstances in probably 98 percent of federal courtrooms around the country. Separate and apart from the outcome, though, I am supremely impressed by your efforts on your client’s behalf. Your comments in support of the requested sentence were perfect in tone and, having now reviewed the extensive sentencing memorandum you filed, your work in that regard was exemplary as well. Your client was certainly fortunate to have you as his attorney.” (Local federal court attorney present at a sentencing)

“I can’t thank you enough, not only for all of the tireless work that you and your staff put into my case, but for telling me what I needed to hear, at a time when I absolutely had to hear it. I consider myself blessed for everything turning out the way it did, especially since I blindly picked you out of a phone book! You helped me, my family and friends in many more ways than the money ever could.” (Child pornography client)

“I think you will find that in any circles where Kathy’s name is raised, people will always respond positively and identify her as an extremely hardworking, knowledgeable and ethical lawyer who is timely and effective with any endeavor she takes on. These circles would include colleagues, friends, prosecutors, judges, professors and others who have crossed paths with Kathy. They would also include the many lawyers like me who have referred numerous cases to Kathy, invariably with positive feedback from the clients regarding her knowledge of their case, empathy, professionalism and fair-mindedness in addressing their concerns.” (Fellow attorney)

“Thank you for giving [our son] back to us. Wonderful work!” (Family of client accused of armed robbery after charges were dismissed)

“Yes, His perfect time and perfect place, you were a part of this plan. I almost didn’t hire you, but I took a step of faith trusting Him and look what happened? Praise God. Our Lord put you in your vocation for a reason, continue to help those He brings your way. May He bless you in ALL you do!” (Client who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in a northwestern Wisconsin county. He was released from prison after attorneys got his conviction reversed.)

“I really cannot thank you enough for your past help. You really know your stuff. It is actually funny when I think about my other past attorney’s knowledge and then when I talk with you. It’s like night and day. You’re like a walking book of knowledge with a purpose-driven life. Thanks.” (Brown County client of attorney Buting)

“A year later and I still believe your defense is the single best example of lawyering I have ever seen.” (Television reporter commenting on attorney Buting’s defense of Steven Avery)

“You have a certain brilliance that makes me sure that when you talk, it is good information and I am in good hands. You tell it to me like it is even when the things you say are not always the things that I would like to hear. You keep it REAL!!!” (Brown County client)

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! I feel like this was one of the biggest blessings that happened in my life. I put this along with my children being born healthy and when I survived that horrific shooting. I appreciate everything you have done for me. I couldn’t ask for better lawyers. I want to say thank you to everybody at your firm. I owe you more than the fee you so rightfully deserve. … You gave me back hope. Thank you, man! Out of my 36 years … I have never seen such kindness before. I don’t know what I did to deserve this; I’m very thankful nonetheless. Thank you for giving me hope again. Thank you for your generosity. There are still some really good people around.” (Federal criminal appeal client)

“There is no other attorney I’ve ever even heard of I’d rather have as chief counsel and leader of my defense/appeals than Jerome Buting. You’re the best. Period.” (Dane County client)

“Your advice and counsel were greatly appreciated. We appreciate you taking the time on your Sunday and evenings to help us. We are SO happy about the results! Thanks again.” (Waukesha County client)

“Thank you again … for everything. Five and one-half years of commitment, so many ups and downs and an outcome like that. You did a GREAT job.” (Waukesha County felony drug offense client)