Jailhouse snitches have been a major source of false testimony in criminal cases for a long time, and recent changes enacted by the Florida Supreme Court are lifting the curtain on these mysterious individuals, stripping state prosecutors of their discretionary power to conceal an informant's identity and background.
Adopting a 2012 recommendation from the Florida Innocence Commission, the Florida Supreme Court has amended the state's Rule of Criminal Procedure.
This latest rule change has added "informant witnesses" to the category of witnesses that prosecutors must disclose to the defense. Under the new rule, prosecutors are required to disclose any information or material provided by the jailhouse informant, including:
- Information regarding any statement allegedly made by the defendant.
- Time and place of the defendant's alleged statement.
- A general summary of the informant's criminal history.
- The informant's history of cooperation.
- The terms of the deal made with the informant for testimony, if any.
In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court acted unanimously, referring to the Innocent Commission's findings and citing them as the basis for change. The findings revealed that informant perjury contributed to nearly 50% of wrongful murder convictions and 46% of exonerations in death row inmates. Further, jailed informants had testified in more than 15% of wrongful convictions that were later overturned after DNA testing exonerated the defendants.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said, "This is an incredibly important opinion. For decades, prosecutors and police have been able to shroud cases involving deceit by keeping jailhouse informants confidential."
"What the court is saying is we are no longer going to allow prosecutors to be the only gatekeeper to the information and determine if that information is relevant."
Rory Stein, executive assistant public defender and general counsel to Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, said that the office was gratified that the court implemented the Innocence Commission recommendation.
He said that the new rule would give juries a more complete picture of informant witnesses.
"Given the incidence of wrongful convictions resulting from the use of false informant testimony, the new rule constitutes a significant step in the court's effort to provide a forum where justice may be obtained," said Stein.
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