What would a person say to get out of jail? I learned the answer the hard way, after spending the better part of 14 years in prison because of a lie told by incentivized witnesses hoping for leniency in their own cases.
At the age of 17, I spent five months in a Missoula juvenile detention facility on a misdemeanor marijuana charge. Four days after my release, I was shocked when law enforcement came to my home and told me I was being arrested for raping another inmate.
Soon I figured out that other inmates made up a story about a rape that never occurred with the expectation of getting a deal for their cooperation. The first inmate to report this lie got his homicide charges reduced to a misdemeanor and was released. It turned out that he was in lockdown when he said the crime happened and could not have witnessed it. The state let out a person who was charged with a murder that actually happened in exchange for convicting me of a crime that never happened.
At my trial there was nothing resembling justice. The prosecution told jurors to believe the inmates who testified against me, instead of believing the corrections officers who said that I didn’t commit the crime, and I was convicted.
For more than a decade I fought to prove my innocence. In 2016, after witnesses and the alleged victim admitted they made up the crime, the Missoula County Attorney said that my conviction “lacks integrity and in the interests of doing justice, it must be dismissed.” I was exonerated the following year.
It was too easy for a lie to cost me my liberty, and to cost taxpayers over $470,000 for incarcerating an innocent person. My case isn’t the only one. Since 1989, incentivized witness testimony led to the wrongful convictions of four innocent Montanans.
These miscarriages of justice could be prevented under Senate Bill 156, sponsored by Sen. Roger Webb. This legislation would improve transparency and fairness by implementing stronger protections against false jailhouse witness testimony.
Prosecutors are already constitutionally obligated to turn over certain information on incentivized witnesses to the accused before trial. This legislation would ensure prompter and more complete disclosures, which would allow the defense to raise issues of witness credibility to the judge and jury. In addition, it would allow judges to hold pretrial hearings to weed out false incentivized witness testimony before it taints a jury.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has tabled Senate Bill 156 in a split vote, and Feb. 28 is the deadline to move it forward. While law enforcement voiced concerns about the legislation’s impact on confidential informants, the amendments put forward to address these issues have now been adopted.
You can help prevent what happened to me from happening to other innocent Montanans. Contact your state senator and ask him or her to support Senate Bill 156. This is a common-sense step to protect our liberties and ensure a fairer justice system.