The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University announced that “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death” is the winner of the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism. Written by Pamela Colloff and co-published with the New York Times Magazine, the piece explores prosecutors’ use of notoriously unreliable testimony from jailhouse informants to secure convictions — and how it corrupts the justice system.
“The TurboTax Trap” series by ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel, which uncovered years of deceptive practices by Intuit, the maker of tax prep software TurboTax, was recognized as one of two finalists for the award.
Colloff, a ProPublica senior reporter and staff writer at the New York Times Magazine with a long career of investigating wrongful convictions, looked at jailhouse informants by focusing on a con man named Paul Skalnik. Over decades, Skalnik passed himself off as a decorated fighter pilot shot down over Vietnam, a former college football star, a luxury home builder, a criminal defense attorney, an aide to the speaker of the Texas House and an undercover FBI agent. But his most enduring role was that of a jailhouse informant: a supposed straight-shooter to whom men spontaneously confessed their crimes.
Skalnik was so effective in the courtroom that prosecutors in Pinellas County, Florida, put him on the stand again and again. He testified or gave information in at least 37 cases in Pinellas County alone and helped send four men to death row. Skalnik was the “closer” for the prosecution, the witness who could smooth over a case’s inconsistencies, nudging jurors past reasonable doubt. In return, he was afforded favorable treatment and shorter sentences, benefits that jurors never heard about.
The article stirred a push for reform among the people who use jailhouse informants: prosecutors. Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a network for progressive prosecutors, has urged all district attorneys to read the article and to reconsider how they use jailhouse informants. The Innocence Project now uses Colloff’s story as an educational tool in its efforts to work with state legislatures and prosecutors on limiting and regulating the use of these witnesses.
Newspaper editorial boards across Florida cited Colloff’s reporting in calling for Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop the execution of James Dailey, a man who Skalnik testified against, from moving forward. A week after the story’s publication, the Miami Herald published an opinion piece called “Don’t let Florida execute James Dailey, Gov. DeSantis. He might be innocent.” Similar editorials also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Dailey’s case is now under new scrutiny in a Florida circuit court, and DeSantis has indicated that he will hold off on setting an execution date until Dailey’s appeals have played out in the courts.
Taylor Award judge Kathleen McGrory, deputy investigations editor at the Tampa Bay Times, said: “As someone who lives and works in the Tampa area, I had read a lot about the case at the center of Colloff’s story. Still, I found her work to be surprising, damning and outrageous. In addition, I thought the writing was pristine and the story structure was flawless. The work is a master class in both records reporting and narrative writing.”
Read more about the Taylor Family Award here.