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Two More Exonerations Stress the Need for Credible Evidence

Two more innocent men have been freed from death row. Just last week, Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell became the 137th and 138th people to be exonerated from death row. The two men were convicted of a drive-by shooting in 1993 based on the testimony of an in-custody informant who had been offered leniency from the prosecution. The prosecutors at trial withheld information about this plea-deal from the defense, which resulted in a new trial. All charges against the two men have now been dropped because of the unreliability of the in-custody informant’s testimony, the only evidence that linked Douglas and Powell to the crime.

These exonerations highlight the power prosecutors have in securing convictions by utilizing in-custody informant testimony, even when no physical evidence links a defendant to the crime. Testimony by in-custody informants or “jailhouse snitches” as they are often referred, is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. With little to lose, jailhouse snitches have great incentives to provide false information to prosecutors in exchange for leniency or other forms of compensation. Deals that are made between prosecutors and jailhouse snitches do not often come to light when a jury has to weigh the evidence is a case.

The exonerations of Douglas and Powell demonstrate, yet again, the very real threat of false testimony and the strong need for corroborating evidence to ensure that accurate and credible testimony is presented to juries in criminal trials. The fairness and accuracy of our justice system is at stake when jurisdictions do not require mandatory, pre-trial disclosures of all incentives given to in-custody informant witnesses, as recommended in In-custody Informant Testimony: A Policy Review.

Unfortunately, Douglas and Powell are not alone in their experiences with a prosecution that withheld important evidence. Such acts are the most common type of prosecutorial misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions. The flawed trial that led to the wrongful convictions and death sentences of Douglas and Powell, along with the cases of the 136 death row exonerees before them, again highlight the urgent need for reform to address the common causes that lead to wrongful convictions. As exonerations continue to occur throughout the country, it is abundantly clear reform is needed to stem the tide of wrongful convictions and begin to restore credibility, fairness, and accuracy to our criminal justice system.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

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John Terzano

John Terzano

John Terzano has been involved in social justice advocacy for more than twenty-five years. Terzano led a five-year campaign to pass the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), the first piece of federal death penalty reform legislation to pass Congress and be signed into law. The IPA allows for DNA testing of individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted and authorizes funding to states to clear their DNA backlogs and improve forensic laboratory capacity and standards across the nation as well as provide assistance to states to improve the quality of legal representation for indigent defendants in State capital cases among other reforms. As president of The Justice Project, John is instrumental in working to reform the criminal justice system through public education, litigation support and legislative reform efforts.

Terzano received his undergraduate degree in public affairs from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University; graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC-DCSL); and received a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree in International Legal Studies from American University's Washington College of Law. Terzano is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UDC-DCSL, is a former Vice Chair of the American Bar Association's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities Criminal Justice Committee and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Friends of the Law Library of Congress.