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Jailhouse Informant Bill Clears State Legislature, Heads to Rauner's Desk

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Illinois Innocence Project
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Charles B. Palmer being escorted out of prison on the day of his exoneration in Nov. 2016. Palmer was convicted of murdering a Decatur man in 1998. Prosecutors relied on informant testimony.

Criminal justice advocates say a measure that's cleared the Illinois legislature will keep innocent people from winding up in prison. Among other things, it would require criminal informants to be vetted before their testimony could be used at trial.

The vetting process, known as a reliability hearing, has long been sought by defense attorneys and advocates as a means to throw out any faulty testimony from so-called "jailhouse informants" during a trial.

The Illinois Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group, says informants have played a major role in convicting innocent people, as they're often motivated by deals struck with law enforcement officials. Most of the 11 prison sentences the Project helped to exonerate involved some kind of false testimony.

John Hanlon is the group's Executive and Legal Director at the University of Illinois Springfield. He says reliability hearings are essential in fixing the state's criminal justice system

"We want people to have confidence that the system can get it right, and not just get it wrong," he said.

Hanlon says the hearings would cut down on the number of wrongful convictions in Illinois courts.

"It's worth it, obviously, to that person who's not wrongfully convicted, but it's also worth it to our society. Every time someone is wrongfully convicted, citizens lose confidence in the criminal justice system."

The measure would require prosecutors to reveal any information they obtained through a criminal informant within 30 days, as well as if a deal was struck to obtain that information. It's now on its way Governor Bruce Rauner's desk.

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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