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Law on informants designed to avoid wrongful convictions

Illinois led nation in jailhouse snitch cases

National and Illinois organizations that fight wrongful convictions are hailing a new Illinois law as the best protection in the country against false testimony from people in prisons or jails who may be seeking to help themselves by accusing others of crimes.

“Illinois, quote-unquote, leads the United States in people having been wrongfully convicted in jailhouse snitch cases,” said John Hanlon, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois Springfield. “That’s a dubious leadership. Hopefully, this bill will take a big step toward correcting that.”

Hanlon was talking about Senate Bill 1830, which requires that a hearing be held to gauge reliability of jailhouse witnesses in murder, sexual assault and aggravated arson cases before the testimony can be heard at trial.

It takes effect Jan. 1. The Senate voted 54-1 on Nov. 14 to override a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner, and the House followed with an 80-31 override vote on Nov. 27.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, and Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, passed the Senate unanimously in 2017 and passed the House in April. Rauner said in a veto message that the use of testimony “is already regulated by rules of admissible evidence and courts have the procedural tools to protect against unreliable testimony. We should not further hinder the ability of our state’s attorneys to prosecute these serious crimes or curb the roles of juries in appropriately weighing the testimony presented to them.”

But Hanlon said jailhouse informants – people in prison or jail who testify about hearing others tell of crimes – are “highly incentivized.”

“It’s no secret to any criminal defense lawyer or any judge or anybody else who pays any attention to the system that people ... who have their own legal criminal consequences at stake will lie in order to help themselves,” Hanlon said. “It’s been going on forever, and now I think we have a little bit better handle on the process.”

Illinois had a law on the books for such pretestimony reliability hearings in death penalty cases, but that law became moot when the death penalty was ended in Illinois in 2011. Hanlon said the new law, mandating such hearings when certain serious crimes are alleged, makes sense as it did in capital cases, given that long sentences like 50 years can be handed down.

He also said judges can have hearings to determine if testimony should be allowed if there are questions of reliability of expert or child witnesses, so it makes sense that the judge be a gatekeeper in cases of jailhouse informants as well.

He said the bill will ensure that jurors hear more than the usual context about a jailhouse informant, which he characterized as: “Were you in the jail? Was this guy there too? What did he say to you?”

The law also will make clear if someone with a criminal record has repeatedly testified against others, Hanlon added, and let juries detect if “his little cottage industry is to lie to get favors to get out of jail.”

Marvin Reeves, 60, of Chicago is one of 18 people from Illinois who were convicted of murder or attempted murder – and later exonerated – in cases involving jailhouse informants. While that’s the highest total in the country, Hanlon said that especially taking in lesser crimes, that number is just a sampling of the damage done by bad information from such informants.

Reeves and a co-defendant, Ronald Kitchen, were both wrongly convicted of murdering five people, including three children, in 1988 in a Chicago home that was set on fire after the killings.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 9 days after the bodies were discovered in a burning home, an imprisoned informant named Willie Williams contacted a Chicago police officer and claimed that Kitchen had admitted committing the crime with Reeves.

The supposed admission came during two telephone calls that Williams claimed to have made to Kitchen. Although telephone records indicated no such calls had been made on the dates Williams claimed, police obtained a court order to listen in on future calls. According to the registry’s account, 36 calls took place over 11 days, but there was no incriminating information and there was no physical evidence linking Kitchen or Reeves to the crime. Still, on Aug. 25, 1988, police arrested Kitchen and subjected him to “16 hours of alleged abuse and torture” until he signed a confession. He was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to death.

Based substantially on Kitchen’s purported admission to Williams, Reeves was tried separately, convicted by a jury in 1991, and sentenced to life in prison.

The police station where Kitchen had been interrogated was the one where then-police commander Jon Burge, worked. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Burge’s name “became synonymous with torture, a web of tainted court convictions and more than $100 million in settlements with wrongly convicted defendants who lost decades of their lives in jail”

Burge was fired in 1993, but was never prosecuted for torture because the statute of limitations had elapsed, the New York Times reported upon his death in September at age 70. But he was convicted of federal perjury and obstruction of justice in 2010 for denying, in response to a civil suit, that he had inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners in his custody. He was sentenced in January 2011 to 4.5 years in prison, and was released in October 2014.

Kitchen and Reeves were exonerated in 2009, and a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit yielded Reeves a settlement of more than $6 million. He said Kitchen received a similar settlement.

Kitchen has written a book: “My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge’s Police Torture Ring and Death Row,” and described being beaten and kicked, on and off for hours, by people including Burge. An excerpt ran this summer in Chicago magazine.

“It was a sensational case, and the police were under pressure to find the perpetrators,” he wrote.

And as his ordeal went on, he wrote, “In my mind, only two paths existed: They were going to torture me to death, or I would have to confess to a crime I didn’t do.”

Reeves, in a telephone interview, said his total time in custody was 21 years, and said informants should have to provide evidence.

“It was too easy for the guy to do to me and Mr. Kitchen what he (Williams) did to us,” Reeves said. He said Williams, who was doing time at the state prison at Vandalia, knew him and Kitchen from their neighborhood, and couldn’t even tell police details of the alleged crime, but related “only what he read in the paper.”

“Thanks to the shoddy work of the police officers, they helped him not only escape all his time, but lock two innocent guys up for crimes they did not commit,” Reeves said.

Reeves said he works rehabilitating houses, as it is something he can do at his own pace. He also said he sees a psychiatrist every 2 or 3 months.

“Believe it or not, I still cry at night,” he said. “I go to sleep, and when I wake up, I feel like I’m still in jail. And I’ve been home for 10 years.

In addition to the pre-trial reliability hearings, the new law will require prosecutors to disclose key evidence regarding jailhouse informant witnesses to the defense, including benefits provided in exchange for testimony, their complete criminal history, and their previous jailhouse informant activities.

The Illinois Innocence Project said that the exonerations in Illinois alone in cases involving jailhouse informants have yielded more than $88 million in civil lawsuit payments and state compensation.

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