Governor Jerry Brown has signed a new measure into law making it harder for the state to convict a person accused of a crime based upon the testimony of jailhouse informants. Criminal defense attorneys, civil rights advocates and at least two district attorneys in the state supported the measure. Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar vetoed the same proposal twice during his administration at the urging of the California District Attorneys Association.

Our criminal justice system has a variety of important safeguards built in to protect a person accused of a crime from being wrongfully convicted. Every person has the right to a fair trial. Our system places the burden on the prosecutor to prove allegations beyond a reasonable doubt in order to get a conviction. But individuals accused of a crime also have the right to a complete defense.

Among the safeguards the law affords Californians accused of a crime is the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses at trial. But what if a trial witness is unreliable? In 2004, the California Senate created a statewide commission to look into the causes of wrongful convictions in the state.

The commission backed the idea that testimony of jailhouse informants should be restricted during trial. Governor Brown has signed a bill making it harder to convict based upon the testimony of a jailhouse informant.

The new measure will require prosecutors to corroborate the testimony of jailhouse snitches with independent, reliable evidence. The law applies to cases in which the state wishes to rely on the testimony of an inmate who claims a defendant made an incriminating statement or confessed while in jail. Hope for leniency, or an offer of a better deal may often be exchanged for such testimony.

The measure was sponsored by Bay Area Senator Mark Leno. He says jailhouse informant testimony is often self-serving and unreliable. He says, "Without the safeguards created in this legislation, the potential for the miscarriage of justice when informant testimony is involved is just too high."

California now joins 17 other states that require corroborating evidence before the state can use jailhouse informant testimony at trial. The California measure takes effect next year.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, "Law requires corroboration of cellmate's testimony," Bob Egelko Aug. 3, 2011