Supporters called it one of the strongest bills in the country that would protect criminal defendants from lying jailhouse snitches. But now, the I. Beverly Lake, Jr., Fair Trial Act is on life support, blocked by N.C. House leadership after pressure from the state's Conference of District Attorneys.
"In-custody informants"—aka jailhouse snitches—are inmates who claim to have heard defendants say incriminating statements while incarcerated. Although the snitches' testimonies are often unreliable, these informants are commonly used as witnesses for the prosecution, often in exchange for a reduction in charges, or other benefits.
The Lake Act—HB 700—would have banned prosecutions based solely on jailhouse-informant testimony. It also would have required prosecutors to keep a file for each informant's communications. And judges would have been required to instruct juries to scrutinize an informant's testimony by considering, among other things, benefits given to the informant, previous recantations and the informant's criminal history and character.
But after sailing through a House judiciary committee in April, the bill never made it to a vote on the House floor. "As I understand, it's dead," says Peg Dorer, the director of the Conference of DAs.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Tim Moore, R–Cleveland, did not return several messages for comment.
For champions of the wrongfully convicted, the blockage is a bummer. Of the 12 DNA exonerations of North Carolina inmates—including several who remained behind bars for more than a decade—five were convicted at least partially through false jailhouse testimony, according to the Innocence Project.
And in the Eastern District of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, nearly a third of all federal convictions have been won because of perks given to snitches for their testimony.
"Sometimes the case that a DA has requires just a little more evidence," Rep. N. Leo Daughtry, R–Johnston, one of two Republican sponsors of the erstwhile bill, said during the House committee hearing. A wrongful conviction, he added, "is a scary thing."
But prosecutors counter that the bill overlapped with existing statutes that make juries the sole determiners of a witness's credibility, and that jailhouse informants shouldn't be treated any differently.
"The bill was unnecessary," Dorer says. She criticized, among other provisions, the requirement that each informant have prosecutorial files.
"To what end?" she asks. "What for? You're just creating more work for DAs."
"Legislators and other actors in the criminal justice system are rethinking whether this practice should remain as unregulated and secretive as it has been."
Over the past two decades, however, several cases have shown that jailhouse snitches can be adept liars. Concern about snitches gained steam in the late 1980s, when a Los Angeles Times article exposed the case of an inmate who admitted lying on the witness stand, leading to the discovery that a designated section of the local jail was called the "informant tank."
"Criminal informants generally, and jailhouse informants specifically, are an infamous source of error in the American criminal justice system," says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who tracks legislation that attempts to curb false testimony.
In 2005, Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions reported that false informant testimony was the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases, responsible for nearly half of the 111 death row exonerations at the time. In 2011, an Innocence Project report claimed that 15 percent of all DNA-exposed wrongful convictions featured false informant testimony.
This past March, a judge in Orange County, California, removed the entire District Attorney's Office from a high-profile capital case after it was revealed that suspects were routinely placed in a jail cell next to notorious snitches.
The Lake Act was named after the former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice who championed unprecedented criminal justice reforms during his career. He was responsible for the creation of an innocence commission that led to changes in DNA evidence storage, eyewitness identification and videotaped confessions. Lake's efforts also triggered the creation of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, the country's first full-time state agency dedicated to investigating post-conviction claims of innocence.
But Lake's final goal, unrealized during his term, was to address the problem of jailhouse snitches, according to the act's supporters.
"North Carolina is one of the leaders in the country in addressing wrongful convictions," says Rep. Rick Glazier, D–Cumberland, a sponsor of the Lake Act.
Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a Durham nonprofit that investigates innocence claims, lobbied strongly for the bill. Mumma says that several of North Carolina's superior court judges supported the Lake Act. (NC Conference of DA officials say the judges they spoke with did not.)
Mumma points to former client Joseph Sledge, who this past January was exonerated after spending 37 years in prison for a d1976 ouble-murder in Bladen County that he did not commit.
His conviction was supported by the false testimony of two snitches who received reward money from the state for their testimonies. (Last month the N.C. State Bar filed a complaint against Mumma, suggesting that during the Sledge investigation she obtained a water bottle from the sister of other suspects, and submitted it to a DNA lab—an apparent violation of professional conduct rules. Mumma has declined to comment on the complaint.)
The Sledge case illustrates the financial burden of a wrongful conviction—post-conviction DNA testing cost more than $60,000—which have united Republicans and Democrats to address the problem.
Recent studies have suggested that jurors are bad arbiters of an informant's credibility; researchers from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, discovered that mock jurors were not more likely to render a non-guilty verdict even after being told of informant's incentive to testify.
"When the state puts a witness on the stand, there is an automatic presumption of reliability," Mumma says.
Other states have begun to address the problem. California, Texas, New York and Washington, for example, now require judges to caution juries about the credibility of jailhouse informants through statute. At least a dozen more state courts require similar instruction.
California and Texas require corroborating evidence linked to jailhouse-informant testimony. Last month a Texas bill was introduced to impose an outright ban of jailhouse-informant testimony in capital cases.
"Legislators and other actors in the criminal justice system are rethinking whether this practice should remain as unregulated and secretive as it has been," Natapoff says.
The effects of such rethinking are unclear in North Carolina. With the Lake Act now in limbo, its sponsors hope to weave its provisions into other bills before the close of the legislative session.
"I think it's dead, but it still may have a finger out of the grave," Glazier says.