Jailhouse informants virtually phased out
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,
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.