False Witness

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The pitfalls of investigating a jailhouse informant
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False Witness

An investigation into jailhouse snitches

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Some of Paul Skalnik’s mug shots, spanning a decade of criminal activity.

After the publication of my story, He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death, The Los Angeles Times weighed in with a damning editorial, which several Florida newspapers subsequently ran; it stated that Paul Skalnik’s history as a jailhouse informant “brings the system’s failings into sharp relief and stands as an irrefutable indictment of capital punishment.” Legal scholars and criminal justice reformers called on district attorneys to review their use of jailhouse informants.

But so far, there has been no response from any D.A.’s associations, in Florida or beyond. When it comes to jailhouse informants, it’s still business as usual. Just last week, The Miami Herald described a murder case that “relies solely on a jailhouse informant who told police [that defendant Franklin] Tucker confessed to him his involvement in the killing. Other than that, there is no physical evidence placing Tucker at the scene.” Tucker’s defense attorney, the story says, alleges that the jailhouse informant may have been “planted” by police and a prosecutor who is currently facing ethics violations for withholding evidence in another case.

This is the reason I wanted to write about jailhouse informants in the first place. “Jailhouse informants comprise the most deceitful and deceptive group of witnesses known to frequent the courts,” concluded a seminal 2001 judicial inquiry into the wrongful conviction of a Canadian man named Thomas Sophonow. “Usually their presence as witnesses signals the end of any hope of providing a fair trial.”

Which brings us back to Paul Skalnik, the prolific jailhouse informant I wrote about. I promised to give you background on how I reported this story, so I thought I would describe the first time I met him, back when he was still in federal prison — and how he nearly conned me.

At the time, he was confined to F.C.I. Seagoville, a low-security federal correctional institution outside of Dallas. I wanted to see if he would agree to participate in and be interviewed for this story. Skalnik, in a wheelchair, wheeled himself into the small interview room where I sat and greeted me effusively. Then he burst into tears and told me that he was dying of colon cancer. He pulled out a soiled rag which he said was stained with his blood, and though he never explained how the “blood” came to be on the rag, he offered it as proof of his imminent death.

He was friendly, gregarious, histrionic. The hour we were allotted passed quickly. He showed me a Xerox of a 100-foot yacht that he claimed he owned, and he told me of his vast wealth, which he said was stashed in offshore accounts in Panama and Abu Dhabi. He told me he would ensure that his lawyers in Panama — they were with the firm Mossack Fonseca, he said — would write my children into his will, ensuring that their college education would be paid for upon his death. I didn’t tell him that Mossack Fonseca had been shuttered after their activities were exposed in the Panama Papers, or that I was on to him. I just listened.

I finally managed to steer the conversation to his activity as a jailhouse informant. “I worked for the U.S. government for 30 years and got nothing for it,” he said bitterly. “I never got a deal.” 

He was proud of his history as a jailhouse informant, which he claimed had resulted in the convictions of over 100 people. His reputation had been fearsome in Pinellas County, he told me. “If I was on the witness list, people would take deals,” he said, laughing. He bragged, “I never lost a case — never ever.” He thumped the table in front of him for emphasis.

When I asked him specifics about how he had worked with prosecutors and law enforcement, he deflected my inquiries until, finally, our time was up. He told me not to worry, assuring me that he would answer all of my questions. We would correspond, he said; I’d send him a list of everything I wanted to know and he would spend his days writing me answers. It was a hell of a story, he told me, and he’d give me all the details. He wouldn’t hold anything back. He would explain everything.

I’m embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to figure out that Skalnik, in the end, wasn’t going to tell me anything. I spent hours crafting letters filled with questions informed by the trial transcripts and decades-old documents I was reading. I sent followup notes through an email system that allows federal inmates to communicate with people in the outside world. I offered to come back and see him. But there was always a hangup: he wasn’t feeling well, or there was a problem in the prison’s mail room, he said, and he hadn’t received my letter. After months of this, he told me that my questions made him “nervous.” Then he went dark on me.

I’ll explain more about how I pieced together the story, without Skalnik’s help, in future newsletters. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading!

Best wishes,
Pamela

 
   

More From This Investigation

He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death.

Paul Skalnik has a decadeslong criminal record and may be one of the most prolific jailhouse informants in U.S. history. The state of Florida is planning to execute a man based largely on his word.

30 Years of Jailhouse Snitch Scandals

More than 140 people have been exonerated in murder cases involving jailhouse informant testimony since the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on its constitutionality in 1966. Yet informant testimony is still allowed nationwide, and the limited reforms that exist have yet to prove effective.

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