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Jailhouse Informants' Reliability Called into Question - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Jailhouse Informants' Reliability Called into Question

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A recent Albemarle County murder case will heavily rely on jailhouse informants.  The jury knows these witnesses are convicted felons.  They know the inmates are getting something in return for their testimony.  But how reliable is that information?

For the most part, experts say testimony from jailhouse informants is not reliable, sometimes convicting innocent people of the most terrible crimes.

Inmate informants are being used to convict people in some of the highest profile cases in the area.

"Juries give more weight to jailhouse snitches than judges do, than prosecutors do, even than anybody else in the process does," said Lloyd Snook, a criminal defense attorney. 

That was the case in 2009.  Lloyd Snook defended Roderick McDowell in 2009, the man accused of robbing and murdering William Godsey at the Wood Grill Buffet in 2007.

During the trial, prosecutors used six jailhouse informants who claimed McDowell confessed to the murder.  That led to a conviction.

"We could show that some of those people could not possibly have heard what he said," Snook said.  "They were never in the same place together.  The jury still believed them."

McDowell is now serving a 60-year sentence.

University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett said, "They know there was no witness really and if they want to make stuff up, they won't get caught."

Garrett reviewed the first 250 cases where people were exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.  More than 50 cases used jailhouse informants to get a conviction.

"Sometimes informants lie and we all know that," said Garrett.  "But sometimes they can lie in a way that makes what they are saying seem really truthful."

The case against Michael Hash relied on an inmate informant who said Hash confessed to killing Thelma Scroggins in Culpeper County.  A dozen years later, a federal judge overturned his murder conviction.

"They weren't part of the crime," Garrett said.  "They weren't part of the conspiracy.  They don't have inside information about what happened."

That said, Garrett says there are benefits to informants, especially in white collar crimes or organized crime where someone on the inside comes forward.

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