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Approach to jailhouse informants questioned after inmate's innocence proven

A new story from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism looks at a case of a man convicted by an acquaintance's testimony and released 12 years later, after being exonerated by DNA evidence.

In 1995, teenage runaway Jessica Kayne was killed in Milwaukee.

After being held and questioned for several days, a man named Sammy Hadaway blamed his friend, Chaunte Ott. Both men were eventually sent to prison.

The problem is - neither man did it.

It turns out Hadaway suffers from brain damage from a lifetime of cerebral palsy and epilepsy. DNA evidence later determined serial killer Walter Ellis, the so-called "Milwaukee Northside Strangler," was actually Jessica's murderer.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is out with a story by Mario Koran that suggests Wisconsin's lack of a stated policy for dealing with so-called "jailhouse informants" or "snitches" -- and their unreliable testimony - is a big part of the problem.

Terry Bell: Doesn't this illustrate the problem with jailhouse informants? They'll say pretty much anything they think the people offering them a deal want to hear.

Mario Koran: Yeah, and I think on both sides of the law, everybody who I've spoken with, recognizes those dangers.

TB: Some states around the country do have uniform policies ... as to how to deal with jailhouse informants. What's typical of those stated policies?

MK: There are 10 states that do regulate this. I think the most common way that states can protect against problems with incentivized testimony are requiring some type of corroboration from a witness. For instance, if somebody came forward and said they knew a guy who committed a crime, those states would require a certain level of evidence to match what that person said before they would move forward with putting the person who was fingered on trial.

So we see those protections in Illinois and California. Specifically, in Los Angeles County, a deputy wishing to use a jailhouse informant as a prosecution witness ... they must obtain prior approval from a jailhouse informant committee, which would include a brief description of the corroborating evidence, the criminal history of the informant, and a disclosure of any incentives that investigators might have offered.

So it really lays it all on the table, and lets everybody know a little bit about the informant, and what that person might have to gain.

TB: So there are checks and balances, in other words.

MK: Yeah, that's a good way to say it.

TB: Is there any indication that Wisconsin is taking any steps in that direction?

MK: No. Not that I know of. I think there's an implicit understanding (in Wisconsin) that prosecutors wouldn't put an informant on the stand if that informant didn't have good information. But I think, sometimes as a last resort, that's all the prosecutor has.

So while that prosecutor operates within practical and ethical guidelines, I think sometimes, just by default, the informant ends up testifying. And as we've seen in Wisconsin, as well as other states, that's ensnared innocent people, and led to quite a few problems.

Meanwhile, Chaunte Ott was released from prison in 2009. The Wisconsin Innocence Project is still trying to get Sammy Hadaway's conviction overturned.

Mario Koran worked with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism on this story. You can read his full story at