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It's hard to tell who to trust when accused criminals turn on each other. Is the jailhouse informant singing a false song in order to get a lighter sentence? Isn't it curious how the accomplice claims the other guy took the lead in everything?
By the very nature of it, informants are usually self-interested, leading to serious credibility issues. For this reason, California requires corroboration for the testimony of an accomplice and an in-custody informant. And, in a case of first impression, those two may corroborate each other, according to a recent decision by the state's appellate court.
Not a Lot of Trees in Oakland, but Plenty of Stool Pigeons
The case arose after George Huggins was convicted of murder and robbery stemming from an Oakland mugging in which the victim, a father of three, was shot and killed, for $10 and GPS system. The Huggins conviction was partially based on the testimony of his girlfriend, who committed the robbery alongside him and was originally charged as a codefendant. In exchange for her testimony, she plead to reduced charges. In addition to the girlfriend's testimony, prosecutors presented testimony from Larry Houser, who met Huggins when they shared adjacent jail cells. In exchange, Houser was offered a reduced sentence, for an unrelated crime.
The prosecution had its accomplice and its informer, both willing to testify against Huggins in exchange for leniency. What they didn't have was further corroborating evidence.
Court Says No to "Judicially Constructed Rules of Evidence"
Under California Penal Code section 1111, "a conviction cannot be had upon the testimony of an accomplice" without corroborating evidence. Similarly, section 1111.5 states that a defendant cannot be convicted with a finding of special circumstances (here, murder while committing a robbery) on the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant. The code goes on to state that accomplices may not corroborate accomplices, and informants may not corroborate other informants.
Huggins had argued that the section's twin provisions, prohibiting corroboration of like by like, required that informants could not corroborate accomplices. To allow so would undermine the statute's attempt to prevent self-interested testimony being used for convictions. The court declined to enact such a rule. Credibility, it held, is to be decided by jurors, not judicially created rules of evidence.
Prosecutors can sleep a little easier now, knowing they have escaped a potentially huge restriction on evidence, while alleged murders should remember not to spill their guts in the jail cell.