Reliance on a “jailhouse snitch” is self-evidently reasonable doubt

How about a short break from all things Trump.  I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the incredibly problematic nature of relying on witness testimony in trials from witnesses who receive a deal for their testimony.  The classic example is the witness who testifies that the defendant confessed to only him in their shared jail cell about the murder he committed.  The witness then gets a reduced charge for whatever he is up against.

When you read about exonerated person released from prison, far more often than not, a key part of the case is that somebody lied in their testimony to get a lighter sentence for themselves.  All the damn time.  In short, the very existence of this type of deal is itself reasonable doubt.  So what then, is the true value of this kind of testimony.  Well, sadly, the value is that juries convict people based on it every day, despite the evident unreliableness.  Honestly, it is time for courts to consider this type of testimony inadmissible.  Will this help some guilty people go free?  Undoubtedly.  I’ll take that exchange over innocent people languishing in prison because somebody lied to put them there.

Anyway, what finally inspired me to write about this is that the man who has been imprison for 6 years for killing Chandra Levy has just been released from prison and will not be retried.  Why was he convicted in the first place without any physical evidence in the case?

Trying to prove that Guandique was the killer was difficult for prosecutors from the start. There was no forensic evidence and no eyewitness. The heart of the prosecution’s case rested with Morales, who said he shared a cell at a Kentucky prison with Guandique in 2006 and became the first to directly link Guandique to Levy’s death.

Yep.  Maybe if this kind of testimony backs up everything else.  Maybe.  But as the primary evidence?  That absolutely screams “reasonable doubt.”  The fact that juries (and prosecutors!) apparently continually fail to see it this way suggests to me that perhaps they should simply not be trusted with this kind of evidence.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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