News outlets recently featured a former police officer whose testimony helped send 37 people to Texas prisons and helped put four people on Florida’s death row.
His role did not come from his brief time on the force. Instead, he did it all while behind bars agreeing to be a prison informant, often known as a jailhouse snitch.
Criticism increasingly dogs the use of jailhouse snitches in securing convictions and sentences. Some states, including Florida, have tightened their laws and policies for using prisoner claims during investigations and in court.
Prison may get easier when you say the magic words
Paul Skalnik spent time as a police officer in Austin, Texas, before ending up in prison for kiting checks.
While in prison, he came to understand something. He could arrange for various benefits by giving police testimony they could use to convict suspects and/or increase their sentences.
Sometimes the police would come to him with default cases, he would make them less difficult and reap some rewards, according to the findings of an Austin-based investigative reporter for ProPublica.
Although his claims “were actually basic details if you read the newspaper or watched anything about the case on TV,” Skalnik was good at weaving convincing stories for jurors when police and prosecutors needed help.
Florida improving its rules for prison informants
Before a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, an accused person’s defense attorneys had to formally ask the judge to force prosecutors to identify where they were getting their confidential information.
Now, prosecutors might have to admit that their witness is imprisoned. And they also must disclose whether their source got anything in exchange for their claims.
According to the findings of the Florida Innocence Commission, when Florida prisoners are released from death row (typically due to fresh information from new DNA-evidence technology), it turns out close to half had been convicted using false testimony from jailhouse snitches.