Jailhouse informants virtually phased out


April 14, 2009


Ontario has effectively ended the use of jailhouse informants - a controversial category of witness who solicits leniency and favours in return for providing damning testimony against fellow inmates.

Internal memos obtained through freedom of information show that only one jailhouse informant was approved for use in 2006 by special vetting committees at the Ministry of the Attorney-General.

In 2005, three were approved to testify for the Crown.

These numbers contrast with a total of 56 potential jailhouse informants who were vetted between 1998 - the year the committees were created - and 2004. Thirty of these were approved to testify and 26 were denied.

In 13 other cases over that period, committees issued no recommendation because a defendant either pleaded guilty or police recognized independently that an informant was unreliable.

The vetting committees were set up in response to recommendations from the Kaufman Commission, which spent a year probing the 1992 wrongful conviction of an Ontario man, Guy Paul Morin, for the murder of his next-door neighbour, Christine Jessop.

A ministry spokesman, Brendan Crawley, said that prosecutors have been receiving a great deal of training about the dangers of jailhouse informants, which has likely contributed to the plummeting number of requests.

Jack Pinkofsky, a Toronto lawyer who defended Mr. Morin, commended the ministry for its stand yesterday. "Sometimes, the state only acts when it is pushed, but regardless, when they do respond and recognize the error of their ways, the state is to be commended," he said in an interview.

"God knows how many innocent people have been sent to jail because the police and state relied on that kind of shoddy, specious information that your backyard neighbour wouldn't trust," Mr. Pinkofsky said. "The use of them is so fraught with danger - it's like walking on ice in the spring time - that they should never be used."

The Morin case was typical. Two petty criminals incarcerated with Mr. Morin while he was awaiting trial claimed to police that they had overheard him make an anguished, late-night confession. Mr. Pinkofsky later discovered that the two inmates had collaborated on their story and bargained with the police and Crown to obtain special favours.

"The inducements to lie and distort the truth are so great," Mr. Pinkofsky said. "That the law ever did trust those people is quite remarkable. It's an indication of how far the prosecution will go to clutch at the most unreliable straws and use them to convict.

"They claim that they will give you the real goods if you drop their charges or drop their sentence in half," he said. "Or, if you promise not to charge their girlfriend or wife, or their son or their daughter.

"hose are the kinds of baksheesh that can cause someone to say: 'I'll say whatever you want, but give me a good deal.' "

Vetting committees are composed of three to five top prosecutors and ministry officials. They look at the nature of the prosecution where an informant may be used and his anticipated testimony.

Committees also look at the rest of the Crown's evidence, and analyze the informant's reliability based on a checklist developed by the Kaufman Commission that includes the person's criminal record and previous episodes in which the person has testified.

Last, the committees examine any requests for leniency made by the informant as well as any agreements that the Crown has made with them.