Kansas bill regulating jailhouse witness testimony unlikely to become law this year

Olin Pete Coones
Posted at 8:41 PM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 23:53:54-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Olin “Pete” Coones went to prison for a murder he did not commit in Kansas City, Kansas, a jailhouse informant was the damning witness.

No physical evidence tied Coones, whose story was featured Friday on "Dateline," to the crime.

The father of five even had an alibi, but Wyandotte County prosecutors relied on a jailhouse witness, who had been convicted of “crimes of dishonesty" and who was later determined to be “unreliable.”

“In our case, (the jailhouse witness’) words left us with a history of pain and suffering that can no longer be mended,” Coones’ son, Ben, told Kansas lawmakers in March.

Coones spent 12 years behind bars before he was exonerated. He died only 108 days after being freed.

Now, his family is fighting to regulate jailhouse witness testimony.

“Perhaps if this bill would have been in place 13 years ago, he would be a free man and still be with us today,” Ben Coones told Kansas legislators in March.

The Kansas House unanimously passed a bill that would require prosecutors to disclose specific evidence related to jailhouse witnesses to defense attorneys.

The bill never made it out of the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

“As we’ve studied more and more the causes of wrongful convictions, it’s become clear jailhouse informant testimony is an issue," Midwest Innocence Project Director Tricia Rojo Bushnell said. "States around the county are looking at it and jurisdictions around the country are looking at it."

So far, nine states have passed laws to regulate jailhouse witness testimony.

Each of the state’s laws address different parts of the legal process, such as requiring pre-trial hearings about the witness' reliability or requiring prosecutors to keep a database of jailhouse witnesses.

“The big issue is jailhouse informants typically in coming forward are doing so to get a deal,” Bushnell said. ”Prosecutors are required to turn over any sort of evidence that would show they have received the deal, but oftentimes, for jailhouse informants, they don’t receive the deal until after they testify, so there is nothing to turn over and it can be completely unreliable."

The Senate Committee on Judiciary will reconvene the week in May, but Sen. Rick Wilborn, the committee’s co-chair, said the Judiciary Committee “does not plan to work any bills in committee.”

“There is another year of this biennium,” he wrote in an email. "May take a closer look at it next year."

Bushnell said until this bill is passed, there is no way of tracking how often jailhouse informants are being used in Kansas.