For decades, jailhouse informants have been presented as credible witnesses at criminal trials. In the movies, you’ve seen them called “snitches.” They testify about what they say they heard while being held in the same facility, or even the same cell, as the defendant.
Using one jailed suspect to testify against another is perfectly legal. Ex-police officer Paul Skalnik has been in and out of jail on 31 charges of writing hot checks, including a couple of felonies. While serving his sentences, Skalnik made a career of being an informant. His testimony has helped send 37 people to prison in Texas, and four to death row in Florida.
Pamela Colloff is an Austin-based investigative reporter for ProPublica and a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. She profiled Skalnik’s prolific informant career, and the concerns that using informants as witnesses raise in the criminal justice system.
“[Paul Skalnik] was very briefly an [Austin police] officer,” Colloff says. “He quickly began writing hot checks and got in trouble with law enforcement and the way that he would get out of trouble … is he would claim to have overheard a confession of somebody he was jailed with. Usually someone who was awaiting trial who prosecutors very much needed to get a conviction with. And that was his sort of get out of jail free card.”
Colloff says the practice of using the testimony of a jailhouse informant in court is questionable because the evidence can be fabricated narrative.
“Many of the details that law enforcement or prosecutors were claiming, were known only to them,” Colloff says. “The only way that Paul Skalnik could have obtained them, was from the suspect in the case. They were actually basic details that if you read the newspaper or watched anything about the case on TV … and he used those details to weave together these very incendiary narratives that made juries want to convict.”
Written by Antonio Cueto.