Jailhouse informants can have incentive to lie. Kansas bill shows the bigger picture

In an era when crime issues are often played for partisan advantage, it is rare to see Republicans and Democrats come together in the cause of keeping innocent people out of prison. That just happened in the Kansas House. Soon, we hope, the state Senate will repeat the accomplishment.

State House legislators last week overwhelmingly passed a bill that would require Kansas prosecutors to disclose information to defendants about so-called “jailhouse informants.” Those are folks who sometimes testify against defendants at criminal trials — usually with information obtained while both the witness and defendant were imprisoned together, and generally with the expectation the informant will see his or her own punishment reduced.

Jailhouse informants have obvious incentives to testify. And sometimes those incentives lead them to stretch the truth, or even lie outright.

That’s what happened to Olin “Pete” Coones Jr., for whom the new bill is named. Coones, a retired mail carrier and father of five, spent 12 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder following the 2008 deaths of Kathleen and Carl Schroll in Wyandotte County. Prosecutors produced no physical evidence or witnesses tying Coones to the deaths. But they did offer the testimony of a jailhouse informant who had a history of mental illness and dishonesty — and who testified that Coones had confessed the crimes to him in the cell they shared while awaiting trial.

A dozen years later, authorities determined that Kathleen Schroll had actually committed a murder-suicide — and that Coones had been railroaded by the prosecution. He was exonerated and released from prison at the end of 2020. Just three months later, he died of cancer at age 64.

Before he died, though, Coones called on lawmakers to make the informant process more transparent. The Kansas House bill would do that by requiring prosecutors to disclose the agreements they make with informants, as well as informants’ criminal history — and their history of acting as informants in other cases. Testimony from informants would not be prohibited, but defendants and juries would have a better picture of why and how those informants ended up on the stand.

The bill is “just saying we think only reliable testimony should be used to convict people,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.

What might be most remarkable about the bill, though, is the support it has received from a wide array of advocacy organizations. The Midwest Innocence Project and the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are both backing it, as might be expected, but so is the conservative Americans for Prosperity and a victims’ advocacy organization, the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

“It’s just generally considered noncontroversial to believe innocent people shouldn’t be in prison,” Bushnell said. “It’s pretty easy for people to want to come to that table.”

That broad backing produced overwhelming support in the Kansas House, which voted 117-4 in favor. The bill now goes to the state Senate.

Unfortunately, final passage is far from assured. Last year, a similar bill passed the Kansas House with unanimous backing — only to die in the Legislature’s upper chamber. Advocates aren’t quite sure what will happen this time around.

“What we’ve seen is that the will to pass this continues in the House,” Bushnell said. “We’re hopeful the Senate will take it up and hear it.”

We share that hope — and find it unlikely that Coones is the only Kansan wrongly imprisoned using the testimony of a jailhouse informant. The Star’s Luke Nozicka reported that it has happened at least 10 times in Missouri in recent yearsincluding with the recently-released Lamar Johnson. And a recent study by the University of Notre Dame uncovered more than that 200 such wrongful convictions across the country.

“Regardless of their obvious conflicts of interest, jailhouse informants are extremely effective in persuading jurors to convict,” the study found.

The Kansas bill would simply arm defendants with knowledge of those conflicts. Pete Coones and his family can’t ever recover the 12 years he spent in prison. But it’s not too late to better ensure justice for future defendants.

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