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Florida Supreme Court tightens rules on informant testimony

In a time of modern advances in evidence-gathering technology, such as DNA analysis and smartphone tracking, it is tempting to overlook more time-tested methods that prosecutors still use to build a case for criminal trial.

The Florida Supreme Court has, however, recently decided that one of these staples -- confidential informant testimony -- is now subject to new requirements that can help defense attorneys to better serve their clients.

The new ruling, which the court arrived at despite contrary recommendations from two of its own committees that reviewed the issue, requires prosecutors to reveal to the defense the names of any informants it plans to use. In addition, the gist of what their testimony will consist of and whether the informants will receive anything in return for their testimony must also be revealed.

Confidential informants -- especially the “jailhouse” variety -- can be helpful to prosecutors because often suspects being held in custody pending trial may say possibly self-incriminating things to others being held in the same facility. Those listeners may understandably see an opportunity for themselves to bargain with prosecutors for reduced charges, better conditions, or something else in return for divulging what they have heard.

But in practice, the use of such informants has a mixed record of success, and sometimes has resulted in wrongful convictions when the informant testimony has proven unreliable or even false.

Indeed, the Florida Innocence Commission has claimed that as many as 15 percent of wrongful convictions, and nearly half of death sentence convictions that are reduced or overturned, have involved false informant testimony.

The court’s ruling is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary. Up to now, criminal defense attorneys have been able to obtain through motions to the trial court the same information that prosecutors must now make available as a matter of course. But the decision could make it less likely that questionable informant testimony will somehow still find its way into trial.

Source: Daytona Beach News Journal, "Supreme Court changes rules on informants," Frank Fernandez, June 15, 2014

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