Connecticut Supreme Court Requires Special Credibility Instruction for Jailhouse Informant Even If Defendant Allegedly Confessed Elsewhere
By Douglas Ankey
In a decision released on December 1, 2020, the Supreme Court of Connecticut held that a special credibility instruction is required for a jury when hearing testimony from a jailhouse informant regardless of the location where the defendant allegedly confessed.
When Billy Ray Jones was tried for a 2013 murder, Larry Shannon testified that he saw Jones “hooded up” at the Green Homes housing complex and then heard gunshots, after which he rounded a corner and found Michael Williams’ lifeless body on the ground. Shannon further testified that the following day, when he and Jones were at the Marina Village housing complex, a news clip aired on TV about Williams’ murder, at which point Jones was holding a silver handgun and said he “did it,” elaborating that he “walked up to Williams and said, ‘what's poppin’ now’” and then fired.
At the time Shannon testified, he was receiving favorable treatment from the State for his testimony. He had been in custody on two felonies when he came forward and provided the information against Jones. In exchange for his testimony, he was let out of jail without bond, and his sentence on the felonies included no jail time even though he was on probation when he committed them.
At the close of evidence, Jones requested a special credibility instruction. But the trial court denied his request. The jury convicted Jones of murder in 2017. He appealed, arguing the trial court erred in refusing his requested instruction. After the Appellate Court affirmed, the Connecticut Supreme Court granted review, hearing arguments in December 2019.
In its decision then, the Court began by observing that “[t]he general rule is that ‘a [criminal] defendant is not entitled to an instruction singling out any of the state’s witnesses and highlighting his or her possible motives for testifying falsely,’” referencing State v. Diaz, 25 A.3d 594 (Conn. 2011). However, that same decision held that a “special credibility instruction is required for three types of witnesses, namely, complaining witnesses, accomplices, and jailhouse informants.”
Regarding jailhouse informants, a special credibility instruction is required because “an informant who has been promised a benefit by the state in return for his or her testimony has a powerful incentive, fueled by self-interest, to implicate falsely the accused. Consequently, testimony of such an informant ... is inevitably suspect,” as held in State v. Patterson, 886 A.2d 777 (Conn. 2005).
Then, in State v. Arroyo, 973 A.2d 1254 (Conn. 2009), the Court ruled that “Patterson’s requirement for a special credibility instruction ... should be extended to apply to all jailhouse informants” regardless of whether the informant had “received a promise of benefit from the state,” since the reality is that informants expect a reward for their testimony whether or not one was promised. In guiding the jury’s assessment of an informant’s testimony, the trial court may ask the jury to consider several factors, including:
the extent to which the informant's testimony is confirmed by other evidence;
the specificity of the testimony;
the extent to which the testimony contains details known only by the perpetrator;
the extent to which the details could be obtained from a source other than the defendant;
the informant’s criminal record;
any benefits received in exchange for the testimony;
whether the informant previously has provided reliable or unreliable information; and
the circumstances under which the informant initially provided the information to the police or the prosecutor.
However, Diaz made a distinction between an informant’s testimony concerning events he had personally witnessed and that regarding what a defendant allegedly “told” the informant. In that case, the jailhouse informant had personally witnessed the crime before being incarcerated. When a witness testifies to events he claims to have observed, the Court reasoned, his testimony can be contrasted with that of other witnesses and other evidence, and the witness’s ability to observe and remember can be tested. By contrast, testimony about a jailhouse confession is inherently suspect because of the ease with which it can be fabricated, making it difficult to subject to meaningful cross-examination, despite the great weight juries tend to give confession evidence.
Shannon’s testimony did not fit within any of its prior holdings, the Court said. Shannon was at the crime scene when the crime occurred. But he was also testifying as to an alleged confession made by Jones, one that did not occur while the men were incarcerated. Most significantly, Shannon was incarcerated at the time he came forward with his information—meaning he did so with the intent of gaining a benefit from the state in exchange for his testimony, and he had, in fact, received benefit.
The Court concluded that the logic and policy behind its earlier decisions compelled a special credibility instruction applied to a witness like Shannon. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court and remanded the case to that court with direction to remand to the trial court for a new trial.
In its opinion, the Court also acknowledged that false confession evidence is the leading factor in wrongful convictions in capital cases and a major factor contributing to wrongful convictions in other criminal cases. The Court also said that Connecticut’s law governing “jailhouse witness” testimony in criminal trials found in P.A. 19-131 (2019) will from now on “:be coextensive with the trial protections afforded by the special credibility instruction for the testimony of a ‘jailhouse informant.’” Jones was represented in his appeal by Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher. See: State v. Jones, 337 Conn. 486 (2020).
Additional source: AP News
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Related legal case
State v. Jones
|Cite||337 Conn. 486 (2020)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|