Pamela Colloff, a ProPublica senior reporter and staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, is the winner of the 2020 MOLLY National Journalism Prize and the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism for her reporting on the corrosive effect that jailhouse informants play in the criminal justice system.
In an unprecedented sweep of the MOLLY Prize, two other ProPublica projects — Lizzie Presser’s reporting on the dispossession of African American landowners and the jailing of medical debtors, as well as a ProPublica Illinois collaboration with the Chicago Tribune by Jodi S. Cohen, Jennifer Smith Richards and Lakeidra Chavis on the unlawful use of isolated timeouts in Illinois schools — are the runners up for the prize.
Colloff, who has a long career of investigating and chronicling wrongful convictions, was struck by how often these cases relied on the dubious testimony of jailhouse informants. In “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death,” co-published with The New York Times Magazine, she brought forward the shocking case of a prolific jailhouse informant named Paul Skalnik as a powerful example of why the system must change.
Colloff’s story is framed by the troubling case of a Florida death row inmate named James Dailey. At Dailey’s 1987 trial, the most damning testimony came from Skalnik, then an inmate. In at least 40 different criminal cases in Florida and Texas, Skalnik miraculously extracted richly detailed “confessions” from his fellow inmates, helping send a total of four men to death row. In exchange for his testimony, he received lighter sentences and earlier release dates.
Colloff’s reporting shows how far prosecutors were willing to go to protect their star witness — even looking the other way after he molested a 12-year-old girl, allowing him to go on to victimize a 16-year-old. The obstacles to Colloff’s reporting were formidable. In most states, prosecutors’ use of jailhouse informants is not tracked or regulated. The deals they receive are rarely made public. Florida prosecutors concealed the extent to which they had worked with Skalnik and insisted that he never received anything in exchange for his testimony.
To overcome these obstacles, Colloff drew on thousands of pages of police reports, arrest records, jail logs, probation and parole records, pretrial interviews and correspondence, as well as court records back to the 1970s, in both Florida and Texas, from nearly 40 criminal cases. Colloff interviewed dozens who crossed paths with Skalnik. These include men who served time with him; victims of his crimes; defendants he testified against; ex-wives, former stepchildren and ex-fiancees; as well as prosecutors, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys. She also filed more than 50 public records requests for documents.
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. And 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 take action. Within a week of the article, the Miami Herald published an opinion piece called “Don’t let Florida execute James Dailey, Gov. DeSantis. He might be innocent,” written by a high-profile former district attorney, Harry L. Shorstein. Many other Florida newspapers ran an editorial by The Daytona Beach News-Journal, which also cited Colloff’s reporting. “It seems clear that the state never had enough real evidence to convict Dailey, so it turned to lies — lies that have come undone,” the editorial said. “At the least, DeSantis can ensure that there’s no immediate rush to execute him. But the governor should go further and appoint a prosecutor to look at the case again.”
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.
Presented by the Texas Observer and the Texas Democracy Foundation, the MOLLY National Journalism Prize recognizes superior journalism in the memory of journalistMolly Ivins. The Hillman Prizes, awarded by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, honor journalists who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.