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Jailhouse Informants Helped Convict This Man In 1998. Lawyers Hope DNA Evidence Will Free Him

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Jailhouse Informants Helped Convict This Man In 1998. Lawyers Hope DNA Evidence Will Free Him

Jun 10, 2024 | 6:25 am ET
By Madeleine Valera/Civil Beat
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The courthouse in Wailuku where Gordon Cordeiro was convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree attempted murder in 1998 after four jailhouse informants testified that he was involved in both the murder of Timothy Blaisdell and a plot to kill the state’s star witness. Attorneys with the Hawaii Innocence Project say the informants made up their testimony in exchange for reductions in their own sentences. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021)
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The courthouse in Wailuku where Gordon Cordeiro was convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree attempted murder in 1998 after four jailhouse informants testified that he was involved in both the murder of Timothy Blaisdell and a plot to kill the state’s star witness. Attorneys with the Hawaii Innocence Project say the informants made up their testimony in exchange for reductions in their own sentences. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021)

Gordon Cordeiro has spent more than half of his life behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t commit, but thanks to new DNA evidence, the 53-year-old Maui man’s conviction is being revisited. 

His case represents more than a shot at justice for one man, advocates say. It also exposes the pitfalls of relying on jailhouse informants — inmates who provide information to prosecutors in exchange for beneficial treatment, said Kenneth Lawson, co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project, a nonprofit law clinic focused on exonerations. 

Cordeiro’s 1998 murder conviction was based largely on the testimony of four jailhouse informants who claimed Cordeiro tried to hire them to escape from prison and kill the state’s key witness. 

Lawyers with the Hawaii Innocence Project who are working on Cordeiro’s case are also pushing for legislation that would regulate the use of jailhouse informants in future cases. Nationally, testimony from these types of informants played a role in nearly 20% of the convictions the Innocence Project later reversed using DNA evidence, according to the organization.

“Jailhouse informants are notorious because jurors believe them,” Lawson said. “Part of what we want and what has been implemented in other states is a way for the court to review before they put one of these people on the stand. There should be some type of hearing where the court has to determine whether or not these individuals are credible.” 

A 1994 Killing

Cordeiro is accused of fatally shooting Timothy Blaisdell on Aug. 11, 1994, in an area of Kula known as “Skid Row” and dumping his body at the bottom of a ravine. 

Prosecutors said Cordeiro killed Blaisdell during a drug deal and stole $800 in cash from his pocket, according to a petition filed in May by the Hawaii Innocence Project. 

But Cordeiro had an alibi — on the day of the murder he was building shelves in his family’s garage and helping care for his mother, who had ALS, the petition says. That evening, he ordered pizza with his sister and a few friends. 

Much of the evidence against Cordeiro came from a man named Michael Freitas, who three eyewitnesses said was one of the last people to see Blaisdell alive, according to the petition. Bloody palm prints and fingerprints belonging to Freitas were also found near Blaisdell’s body in the ravine.

During the course of the investigation, Freitas told detectives that Cordeiro shot Blaisdell and then forced Freitas at gunpoint to carry Blaisdell’s body into the ravine. Cordeiro’s lawyers say Freitas had a motive to frame Cordeiro because he believed Cordeiro had previously snitched on a friend in an unrelated drug case. 

During Cordeiro’s first trial in 1995, only one juror wanted to convict him and 11 voted to acquit, according to the petition. Because the jury was hung, the case was retried, and Cordeiro was held in custody until it began. 

During the second trial, which concluded in 1998, prosecutors called four jailhouse informants as witnesses. They testified Cordeiro hired them to escape from prison and kill Freitas and presented evidence, including a map the informants said Cordeiro drew to direct them to Freitas’s house. 

The testimony and evidence, which Cordeiro’s lawyers say was fabricated, “colored the jury’s perception” of Cordeiro and led it to convict him of murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to life without parole. 

Attempts To Reopen The Case

The Innocence Project previously filed a petition to reopen Cordeiro’s case in 2021 and said some of the jailhouse informants later recanted statements they made during testimony. It also included a report from a handwriting expert who said Cordeiro was not the author of the map the informants claimed he drew.

In response, prosecutors said the Innocence Project didn’t have enough evidence to reopen the case. 

Even though Freitas was the sole eyewitness to the murder, the state said his testimony had been corroborated by at least 12 other witnesses. 

They also said the jailhouse informants’ recantations should be “viewed with the utmost suspicion” and said no evidence showed their testimony was false or that prosecutors knew it was false. The state noted the Hawaii Supreme Court upheld Cordeiro’s conviction on appeal in 2002. 

But within the last two years, Lawson said Innocence Project lawyers have obtained new DNA evidence they believe is key to overturning Cordeiro’s conviction. 

Freitas had previously testified Cordeiro went through Blaisdell’s pockets after he killed him and took $800 cash and his wallet. But DNA testing of the inside of Blaisdell’s pants pockets revealed only Blaisdell’s DNA and that of an unidentified person. The DNA profile did not match Cordeiro or Freitas. 

“This DNA testing completely refutes the State’s case against Cordeiro because DNA testing proves that Cordeiro did not remove Blaisdell’s wallet and $800.00 in cash from his pockets,” a new petition says. “DNA testing shows that an unidentified individual went into Blaisdell’s pockets and likely removed his $800.00 and wallet.” 

State prosecutors have until Aug. 13 to file a response to the petition, according to court documents. 

In a statement, the Maui County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said it would provide its position on Cordeiro’s motion “on or before that deadline, and after we have had the opportunity to fully consider the defendant’s arguments.”

Unreliable Testimony

Jailhouse informant testimony is one of the leading factors contributing to wrongful convictions nationally, according to the Innocence Project.

Testimony from a jailhouse informant that was later found to be false played a role in the convictions of Albert Ian Schweitzer and Shawn Schweitzer in the 1991 killing of Dana Ireland on the Big Island. 

A Hilo Circuit Court judge last year reversed the brothers’ convictions, citing new DNA evidence he said clearly exonerated the men. 

Jailhouse informants can be unreliable because the expectation or promise of potential favorable treatment by prosecutors gives them an incentive to fabricate testimony, said Marc Bullaro, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. 

“That person is not a witness to the crime, the person is not a co-defendant, the person doesn’t have any involvement in the crime like a normal witness would,” said Bullaro, a retired assistant deputy warden at Rikers Island in the Bronx. “That person only overheard something or was told something by the inmate.”

But Maui County prosecuting attorney Andrew Martin said in a statement that prosecutors consider what evidence may corroborate their witnesses’ testimony before deciding to use them at trial. He also pointed out that defense counsel always has a chance to test the credibility of a prosecutor’s witness during cross examination.

“Before trial, prosecutors are obligated to provide the defense with both clearly exculpatory evidence and evidence that bears on the credibility of a witness, including evidence of any bias, interest or motive,” the statement says.

While informants can be extremely valuable to investigators because of their inside knowledge and close contact with suspects, they are also often known to lie, Bullaro said. As a warden at Rikers Island, he said he used informants to find out what other inmates were doing and where weapons were hidden. But, he said, their statements needed to be looked at with heightened skepticism. 

About 14 states have taken steps to regulate the use of trial testimony by jailhouse informants, sometimes called incentivized informants, either through legislation or court rules, said Amanda Wallwin, state policy advocate with the national Innocence Project

Minnesota, for example, requires prosecutors to enter information into a database managed by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension every time they want to use such an informant. They must disclose the substance of the informant’s testimony as well as any cooperation agreement he or she has have with the prosecution or promise of a future benefit. Defense counsel has access to the information and can investigate it before trial to look for evidence to either corroborate or discredit the informant, Wallwin said. 

“It opens up a real world of information for defense attorneys,” she said. “From everything we hear from attorneys in Minnesota, it’s working really well.” 

Lawson said the Hawaii Innocence Project is advocating for jailhouse informant legislation modeled after Washington state’s. There, prosecutors must disclose to defense counsel any time they plan to use informant testimony and include information such as that person’s complete criminal background and any special consideration they will receive in exchange for testifying. Defense attorneys can also ask that jurors be instructed not to convict a defendant based solely off of a jailhouse informant’s testimony, unless they feel it is true beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Washington’s legislation also created a working group that develops training and guidelines to assist prosecutors in evaluating the reliability of informant testimony before it’s used at trial. 

Lawson said he hopes the renewed focus on Cordeiro’s case will not only get justice for the man he says was wrongfully convicted, but also spur broader policy changes. 

“When informants are being used over and over again even though there’s been a showing that the informant’s not credible and no one suffers any consequences, why should (prosecutors) stop? Especially if they believe (they) got the right person,” he said. “The danger is, as DNA has demonstrated, they’re wrong a good number of times.”