Criminal Justice

Meet Paul Skalnik, one of the most prolific jailhouse informants in American history

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Paul Skalnik learned about the benefits of being a jailhouse informant when he was in the Harris County Jail in Texas in 1978 for passing bad checks.

Skalnik had drained his wife’s checking account, used her good credit to buy a Lincoln Continental and a customized Dodge van, and opened credit cards in her name, according to a New York Times Magazine investigation with ProPublica.

Skalnik was in jail when police began asking inmates for information on the “Moody Park Three,” anti-police-brutality activists who were charged with inciting a riot. Skalnik called the DA’s office and said he could help.

In court, Skalnik told jurors that one of the defendants had confessed to him in prison that his plan all along was to “incite the Mexican American youngsters.” The defendant and his two co-defendants were convicted.

Skalnik soon learned how his information would benefit him in Florida, where he had been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced for violating probation. Prosecutors recommended he that Skalnik be moved from jail to work release.

Since then, Skalnik’s testimony helped send dozens of people to prison, including four on death row, according to the article. In Pinellas County, Florida, alone, Skalnik testified or supplied information in at least 37 cases from 1981 to 1987.

One defendant, James Dailey, remains on Florida’s death row at age 73 for a crime he allegedly committed at age 38. No physical or forensic evidence connected him to the murder of a 14-year-old, and there was no motive. His roommate, who was also convicted in the crime, had pinned the blame on Dailey but refused to testify at his trial. Skalnik’s testimony about a jailhouse confession led to Dailey’s conviction.

Skalnik became skilled “at providing the sort of incendiary details that brought a defendant’s guilt into sudden, terrible focus,” according to the Dec. 4 story.

“The confessions he recounted were lurid and dramatic, strewn with provocative details that prosecutors used not just to show the guilt of the defendants but also to establish that they were diabolically evil,” the article reported. “Skalnik told of victims’ begging for their lives and of remorseless killers who laughed after their slaughters, boasting that they had outsmarted prosecutors and the police.”

Skalnik turned on Pinellas County prosecutors in 1988 when they were reluctant to approve a lenient plea deal in another case against him. Skalnik filed a motion alleging that he had been coached on how to testify to give the false impression that he “had actually heard all these ‘confessions.’ ” He accused 11 prosecutors of misconduct. Prosecutors denied the allegations while claiming that his previous testimony was credible and often independently substantiated.

Skalnik withdrew the motion and received a five-year sentence, to be served in Texas. Texas didn’t agree, however, and he didn’t do the time. He later served time for sexually assaulting a minor and posed as a lawyer in Massachusetts and Texas.

Jailhouse informants like Skalnik can truthfully testify that they were promised nothing for their testimony. But the informants are aware that there will be benefits afterward, the article explains.

Jailhouse informants’ testimony can be unreliable, according to statistics and a 2004 study cited in the article. Jailhouse informants played a role in nearly one in five cases in which people were convicted and then exonerated by DNA. Twenty-two percent of death-row exonerations were in cases relying on jailhouse informants.

Some states, including Florida and Texas, are trying to open up the process. In Texas, prosecutors have to keep track of and disclose the previous cases in which jailhouse informants have testified, the benefits they received and their criminal records. In Florida, the state supreme court changed procedural rules to require the disclosure of informants who will be testifying against defendants and the deals that they have been offered.

Connecticut has gone further in enacting a statewide tracking system for jailhouse informants that documents cases in which they testified and the benefits that they received.

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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