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Minnesota AG pushes for limits on jailhouse witness testimony

by | Aug 17, 2021 | Criminal Defense

As a result of the protests after George Floyd’s murder, the state of Minnesota and many other governments have been making changes to our criminal justice system. The changes are intended to make the system more fair, transparent, accurate and just.

One of the changes Minnesota has proposed is meant to limit the use of testimony by unreliable jailhouse informants. Jailhouse informants are other prisoners who sometimes claim to have heard a particular defendant confess or make damning statements while in jail. These informants routinely receive rewards, typically in the form of reduced sentences themselves.

Far too often, jailhouse informants offer their testimony solely to obtain the reduced sentence or other reward. Sometimes, jailhouse informants have a record of testifying against multiple defendants. Sometimes, they later recant their testimony. Research has shown that false or questionable jailhouse testimony does result in wrongful convictions.

Simply said, we shouldn’t take the testimony of a jailhouse informant very seriously. It is tainted by the quid pro quo offered by prosecutors. There is no real way to know if the testimony is real or just a pack of lies.

Minnesota has passed a bill that would, at the very least, require that jurors be informed about the circumstances of the jailhouse informant’s testimony, including whether or not the person is receiving leniency in exchange for their testimony. It would also require prosecutors to disclose whether the informant has testified in other cases or has recanted previous testimony.

Additionally, when a jailhouse informant receives a lesser sentence in exchange for testimony, their alleged victims would be notified.

One man convicted on false jailhouse testimony received $917,000

Michael Hansen was convicted 15 years ago of killing his young daughter. After the Innocence Project got involved, he was able to prove that his daughter had most likely died of positional asphyxia and was an accident.

At his trial, a jailhouse witness testified falsely that Hansen had opened up to him about alcohol and marijuana use and made statements suggesting he had killed the girl.

“I just kept thinking someone’s going to fix this,” Hansen told the Star Tribune. “Someone’s got to fix this — this isn’t the way my life was going to go. This isn’t the way my life is going to end.”

He was convicted and spent six years in prison before the Innocence Project brought in forensic experts. After he was exonerated, the state awarded him $917,000 in compensation for the wrongful conviction and incarceration.

Hansen is one of at least 17 Minnesotans exonerated since 1989, and one of almost 200 Americans wrongly convicted based on false testimony by a jailhouse informant.

Minnesota is right to require more transparency. Wisconsin should do the same.

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