criminal justice

Convicted Based on Lies

Imagine being arrested for a crime you did not commit.

You are taken to jail, where you wait to stand trial.

You eventually get your day in court, but before you can present your case, prosecutors call a witness who has a damning story to tell.

It’s a fellow inmate from the jail who claims he heard you confess to committing the crime.

Each man featured here was wrongly convicted, in part, on the word of a jailhouse informant. Each served years, even decades in prison. And in each case, the information the snitch gave eventually proved false.

Nine of the men pictured here were condemned to what amounted to a life sentence. One man was sentenced to death.

Their cases afford a rare opportunity not only to see the human cost of jailhouse informant testimony that is false or concocted, but to see how widespread prosecutors’ reliance on these witnesses is. These exonerees hail from all across the country: from California to Kentucky, Illinois to Pennsylvania. They come from big cities and small towns. They are black, white and Latino. Their cases span four decades — dating back as far as 1982, and ending in an exoneration as recently as last year.

Despite these cases, and a spate of other wrongful convictions that have come to light in recent years, jailhouse informant testimony remains an entrenched part of criminal prosecutions around the country and one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

“Jailhouse informants comprise the most deceitful and deceptive group of witnesses known to frequent the courts,” concluded a high-profile 2001 judicial inquiry into the wrongful conviction of a Canadian man named Thomas Sophonow. “Usually their presence as witnesses signals the end of any hope of providing a fair trial.”

Their unreliability is rooted in a curious fact of the criminal justice system: The state is allowed to offer extraordinary benefits to people behind bars if they offer testimony that is favorable to the state’s case. These rewards may include reduced sentences, the dismissal of charges and even cash payments. Or the rewards may be far more modest. In one case featured below, a jailhouse snitch said he received just $25 and a pack of cigarettes for offering false information.

Because benefits are often conferred after a case goes to trial, prosecutors can assure jurors that no promises have been made. As ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine reported in December, Florida prosecutors repeatedly used a prolific jailhouse informant to help secure convictions, and even death sentences. Prosecutors told jurors they had not promised him anything in return, then gave him break after break after he testified, allowing him to be released from jail and to do more harm.

Rarely is anyone held to account when a jailhouse informant’s testimony later proves to be false. In Orange County, California, where an ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal has implicated top prosecutors and law ​enforcement officials — and tainted at least 140 cases, according to a pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union — no one has yet been prosecuted or disciplined for misconduct.

I spoke to the exonerees below about the experience of having their lives destroyed by a system that incentivizes jailhouse informants to lie. Many of these wrongfully convicted men lay the blame not on the informants themselves, but on the prosecutors and detectives who continue to rely on snitch testimony to make their cases, sending potentially innocent men and women to prison.

Harold Hall

Convicted of murder in California in 1990.

Sentenced to life.

A jailhouse informant claimed he received $25 and a pack of cigarettes after he testified. A second jailhouse informant was promised that a murder charge he faced would be reduced to manslaughter, he testified after Hall’s conviction.

Exonerated in 2004.

“Cornelius Lee was in the cell next to me, and he’d pass notes to me with questions like ‘When you all were at the barbecue, who was there?’ And I’d write an answer. Later I found out he’d erased his questions and written in new ones like, ‘When you killed that lady, who was there?’ They used those against me at my trial.”

Robert Bouto

Convicted of murder in Illinois in 1996.

Sentenced to 45 years.

A jailhouse informant testified in a deposition that he was granted conjugal visits and a reduced sentence while acting as a serial jailhouse informant.

Exonerated in 2018.

“Detectives said I’d confessed to somebody. It was like the wind had been knocked out of me. It was the most horrible feeling you could ever feel in your life. I was just like: ‘What? What are you talking about? I didn’t say nothing. I’m 17 and I just want to go home.’”

Jeffrey Clark

Convicted of murder in Kentucky in 1995.

Sentenced to life.

A jailhouse informant was paroled shortly after he testified against Clark.

Exonerated in 2018.

“I never talked to him. We called the jailers to testify, to show he was never in the cell with me. Guess what they said? ‘We don’t keep records of who’s in what cell.’ So then, how do you prove this guy’s lying? You have no proof. There’s no way to defend against a lie like that.”

Justin Chapman

Convicted of murder in Georgia in 2007.

Sentenced to life.

A jailhouse informant received $5,000 from a nonprofit organization that rewards people who report arson.

Exonerated in 2016.

“How much is one man’s life worth? How about two lives? Twenty? Because it’s not just one man’s life that is lost. It’s his family’s life, his wife’s life, his children’s lives. I’ve got four kids. My daughter was 14 months old when I was locked up. My boys were 10, 8 and 2.”

Geraldo Iglesias

Convicted of murder in Illinois in 1994.

Sentenced to 35 years.

A jailhouse informant testified in a deposition that he was granted conjugal visits and a reduced sentence while acting as a serial jailhouse informant.

Exonerated in 2019.

“I only met this person one time. We were in an elevator being taken down to the holding cells. And then I come to find out that he is testifying against me. They were trying to pin a murder on me. I was about to lose my life over something I didn’t do. It was a powerless feeling. Your life is just dangling.”

Bruce Lisker

Convicted of murder in California in 1985.

Sentenced to 16 years to life.

A jailhouse informant received a reduced sentence and was released from jail early.

Exonerated in 2009.

“He said he believed that I was innocent and that he’d help me with my case. So I rolled up my police reports — everything in my case — and shoved them through the hole in the wall between us. That had every fact in it that he needed to allege that I had confessed to him.”

David Robinson

Convicted of murder in Missouri in 2001.

Sentenced to life without parole.

A jailhouse informant was released from jail and received around $2,500. A second jailhouse informant testified in a deposition that he was pressured by police, who threatened to bring a more serious drug charge against him.

Exonerated in 2018.

“They did a DNA test on me. They did a fingerprint test on me. They did a gunshot residue test on me. Nothing matched me to the crime. All that connected me was the word of those two individuals. Without their perjured testimony, I never would have got convicted.”

Nicholas Yarris

Convicted of murder in Pennsylvania in 1982.

Sentenced to death.

A jailhouse informant claimed that Yarris confessed to him, but Yarris was later cleared by DNA testing.

Exonerated in 2003.

“I spent 23 years in solitary confinement. My cell was 9 by 6 feet. Thank God I was raised on the streets of Philly, man. Thank God I grew up in one of the toughest places in the country. Because solitary took every bit of my will.”

John Nolley

Convicted of murder in Texas in 1998.

Sentenced to life.

A jailhouse informant received probation shortly after he claimed to have obtained Nolley’s confession.

Exonerated in 2018.

“When he took the stand, my attorney asked if he had ever snitched for the state before. He said he hadn’t, but that was a lie. He said he was not getting anything for his testimony, and that he was there because he was an honest, upstanding citizen.”

Dennis Allen

Convicted of murder in Texas in 2000.

Sentenced to life.

Two jailhouse informants received reduced sentences. A third jailhouse informant received probation.

Exonerated in 2019.

“A real informant gives information or facts about a case that the authorities can use to actually apprehend and convict the guilty party. But when you use jailhouse informants, you get away from the facts. You’re not using investigative work to solve a case; you’re using someone you know will say anything you want them to say.

And then you use their testimony in court, knowing it’s contaminated. The risk of sending an innocent person to prison is almost guaranteed.”

The information about the role of jailhouse informants in the featured cases was taken from court records, including depositions, affidavits and rulings.

Pamela Colloff Pamela Colloff is a senior reporter at ProPublica and a writer-at-large at The New York Times Magazine.

Katie Zavadski is ProPublica’s research editor.

Design and production by David Sleight.

Photography special to ProPublica: Kendrick Brinson (Harold Hall and Bruce Lisker), Dustin Chambers (Justin Chapman), Whitney Curtis (David Robinson), Joshua Lott (Robert Bouto and Geraldo Iglesias), Leah Nash (Nick Yarris), Brandon Thibodeaux (Dennis Allen and John Nolley), Luke Sharrett (Jeffrey Clark)