TAMPA — Paul Means wore orange as he shuffled into the courtroom, raised a shackled hand and swore to tell the truth.
He told the jury he had 21 felony convictions, 12 of them “crimes of dishonesty.” He told them he was now facing a hefty sentence for charges that included vehicular homicide.
He said he’d been to jail before. It was where he’d met the young man at the defense table.
This was last June in the murder trial of Dontae Johnson. The 22-year-old was charged with shooting a man in a 2017 robbery that occurred during a CraigsList dirt bike sale.
A month before trial, Means wrote to prosecutors a list of facts he knew about Johnson’s case.
On the witness stand, his soft voice quaking, Means described how, in 2018, he had bunked near Johnson in jail. He said he heard Johnson talk in detail about the robbery, how he pulled out a “big gun” and fired, and what he did afterward.
“It had been on my mind,” Means said when asked why he came forward.
He acknowledged he’d offered this kind of information numerous times. What he didn’t say was precisely how many times. Or that he had avoided prison at least once for cooperating.
Or that he got a break that allowed him to be free the night cops say he caused a man’s death.
Means is what’s known in criminal justice parlance as a jailhouse informant, or, pejoratively, jailhouse snitch.
Now 50, he has been arrested close to 40 times, state records show.
For at least the last decade, he has touted an ability to extract incriminating statements from those with whom he has been incarcerated. Armed with details about murders, attempted murders, robberies and other crimes, he writes letters to prosecutors, offers to cooperate and sometimes seeks help for his own troubles.
People like him are a seldom-noticed, but common component in the workings of the criminal justice system. For prosecutors, they can help bolster otherwise imperfect evidence. Where juries might waver, a jailhouse informant can help to remove doubt by delivering incriminating details ostensibly uttered from a defendant’s mouth.
It is commonly believed that this can put the informant in a prosecutor’s good graces, and result in lesser penalties or other benefits.
The trouble, say academics and advocates for the accused, is that jailhouse informants have a strong incentive to lie. Studies have shown they are often unreliable, contribute to wrongful convictions, and juries are not always able to detect when they’re being untruthful.
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“They come into being after the crime, which means they can be generated by the allegations themselves,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law School professor and leading expert on criminal informants. “Jailhouse informant evidence makes other bad evidence look better.”
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has made rooting out wrongful convictions a centerpiece of his tenure as the county’s top prosecutor. He created a conviction review unit to screen claims of innocence and educate the lawyers in his office on common pitfalls that produce bad convictions.
Yet, Warren’s office has repeatedly tapped Means as a witness.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Warren said his prosecutors treat witnesses like Means with “heightened scrutiny.” He asserted that when they’ve used Means, they’ve had further evidence to corroborate his testimony.
“Ultimately the juries are assessing his credibility,” Warren said. “And they know — whether it’s Paul Means or some other jailhouse informant or any witness with a criminal record for that matter — they know that they’re not Sunday school teachers.”
Despite baggage that might raise questions about his credibility, Means has leaned into the role as a serial witness. A Times review of Hillsborough court records found that Means over the years has been listed as a witness in at least seven serious felony cases, though it is difficult to say precisely how many, as measures to keep track of informant activity in Florida’s court system are lacking. He has offered information in several other cases.
He has testified in at least three trials ending in convictions. Defendants in three other cases ended up pleading guilty. In one case, Means recanted his statement against the defendant, who later went to trial and was found not guilty.
On the stand, Means always says he has not been made any promises of leniency, but court records reflect two instances in which lawyers mentioned his testimony to judges and asked to go easy on him. Despite second chances, he has continued to get in trouble, often accused of theft and violating probation.
After a felony arrest in 2018, a state probation officer cited Means’ prolific history of violations to recommend he be sent to prison for three years. A few months later, he testified in a murder trial. Thereafter, he was allowed to continue on probation. Less than two years later, Means was accused of causing a traffic crash while fleeing sheriff’s deputies, resulting in a man’s death.
After that, Means kept testifying. In May, he wrote to Kimberly Hindman, Warren’s chief assistant, offering information in the Johnson case.
The state’s case rested heavily on the recollection of the victim’s son, who had seen the shooter, a video of three men near the crime scene and one of them later running away, and the words of a codefendant, who had gotten a deal for a lesser sentence.
Johnson was found guilty and later sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Warren said the evidence against Johnson was “overwhelming.” So why use Means at all?
It’s a strategic decision, Warren said, with the aim of strengthening a case. He said his office tends to use jailhouse informants when what they say is deemed believable and consistent with other evidence.
“I know that the majority of the time we ignore what (Means) is saying,” Warren said. “And in the few cases where we’ve credited and presented to a jury what he’s saying, we believe that he was being honest.”
‘Fraught with peril’
The biggest danger of jailhouse informants, say those who study them, is they can help convict the innocent.
Informants played a role in close to one-fifth of 367 convictions that were later overturned through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, the national legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. A widely cited 2004 report by Northwestern University School of Law found that close to half of wrongful death penalty convictions involved informant testimony.
“As a general rule, I think the use of jailhouse informants is, frankly, fraught with peril,” said Dawn Boswell, a Texas attorney who started a conviction integrity unit in the Fort Worth prosecutor’s office. “I’m not saying there would never be an instance to use a jailhouse informant. But the potential for danger is so high.”
Informants have been an issue in some high-profile Tampa Bay cases.
Perhaps most prominent is the case of James Dailey, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of a teen girl in Pinellas County. His conviction rested heavily on testimony from three jailhouse informants. One of them, Paul Skalnik, was a known conman and prolific informant who testified in dozens of cases in Florida, Texas and elsewhere.
In Tampa, the 1983 murder case of Robert DuBoise also featured jailhouse informant testimony, coupled with now-debunked bite-mark evidence. DuBoise was exonerated and released in 2020 after Warren’s conviction review unit located old DNA samples, which showed someone else committed the crime.
Warren asserted that the three trials in which his office used Means was “a small number.” He also said that jailhouse informants are seldom the only factor contributing to a wrongful conviction.
Scott Greenfield, a New York criminal defense lawyer and author of the Simple Justice blog, said for prosecutors to use the same jailhouse informant in three separate trials was “shocking.”
“They know how bad these guys are,” Greenfield said. “There’s no excuse where they choose to use them, and they can justify this being somehow beneficial toward whatever view of justice and morality they have.”
Some states have adopted rules governing the use of informant witnesses. Illinois has gone further than most, requiring pretrial reliability hearings, allowing judges to screen those deemed unreliable.
Some jurisdictions have created tracking systems, logging every informant, their record of reliability and whether they received anything in exchange for their testimony.
In 2011, informant testimony became a subject of scrutiny for the Florida Innocence Commission. The group — a committee of 25 judges, lawmakers, lawyers and cops — was assembled at the direction of the Florida Supreme Court to examine the common causes of wrongful convictions.
The commission considered several potential reforms, among them a requirement that jailhouse informant testimony be corroborated by other evidence, and that reliability hearings be held, like in Illinois. They did not favor either of those options.
Instead, the commission recommended a change to Florida’s standard jury instructions to add cautionary language about whether a witness has a reputation for dishonesty or may have received a benefit for their testimony.
They suggested a rule, later enacted, to require that prosecutors disclose to defense attorneys whenever they intend to use a jailhouse informant, including a list of the informant’s criminal history and any other cases the prosecutor knows about in which the informant has cooperated in return for any benefit.
That rule, however, may not be comprehensive.
Before Means testified in the Johnson trial, the state disclosed three prior cases where he’d been listed as a witness. The disclosure did not list the other cases where he was listed, some of which pre-date Warren’s time in office. With regard to his testimony in two trials, the document stated simply that prosecutors were not asked to make a recommendation to the court about his sentence.
‘I believe him to be a liar’
October 2012. The trial of Charles Scoble. He was accused of causing the 2007 death of his newborn son. It happened when he was left alone to care for the baby while the boy’s mother worked.
There were no eyewitnesses to the death. The case hinged on medical testimony.
A medical examiner determined the boy died from brain injuries, the result of being hit or shaken. Other doctors backed up the claim. But defense experts said his injuries were not from shaking, and they were not what caused his death.
Months before Scoble’s trial, Means sent two letters to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office. In them, he wrote he’d been jailed with Scoble in the same dormitory-style housing unit. He said they had gotten to know each other after Means asked to borrow the book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. They’d confided their shared troubles with women and addictions.
Means went on to describe how Scoble confessed to him that he had killed his son, how he had shaken and hit the boy because he was “blowing his high.” He had drawn up a self-help questionnaire for Scoble to fill out — a ruse to get him to document the purported confession. He asked the state to contact his attorney.
“I can help you with this case,” he wrote. “Looking to hear from you. Oh yes I’ve already (had) my statement notarized!”
He took the witness stand that fall. A handwriting expert opined that the questionnaire responses were consistent with samples of Scoble’s handwriting.
Kimberly Hindman, who prosecuted the case and would later become Warren’s chief assistant, offered a blunt assessment in closing arguments:
“He is an opportunist,” she said. “And if you ever have, or anybody ever has the unfortunate circumstances of being in jail, if Paul Means comes to you, you’d better run in the other direction.”
Doug Snodgrass, who served as a juror, said the physical evidence and testimony from a medical examiner and a pediatrician were the main things that convinced him of Scoble’s guilt. Means was less of a factor.
“My personal opinion is his testimony kind of took a back seat,” Snodgrass said. “It was nice to have somebody to go, ‘OK, he actually did it.’ He was kind of the icing on the cake.”
Scoble, who is serving a life sentence, continues to appeal his conviction. His appellate attorney, Wade Whidden, has challenged various aspects of Means’ testimony.
“I believe him to be a liar,” Whidden said.
In a court paper, Whidden noted that Means was facing a possible 10-year prison sentence before he testified.
Sentencing guidelines pegged his lowest permissible prison sentence at 18 months, but gave the option for drug treatment instead.
One of Whidden’s appeals includes a link to an audio file of Means’ July 2012 sentencing hearing.
In the recording, a prosecutor can be heard whispering to a judge that Means had agreed to testify in a case. Means’ lawyer said he would testify in the trial of a person charged with killing a baby and that the information he provided was crucial.
“He’s just got a drug problem,” she told the judge.
Means was sentenced to a year in jail, with an early release possible once he completed an in-jail drug treatment program. He got out four months later.
‘I will make all parties winners’
It wasn’t long before Means was back in jail. Between February 2013 and March 2014, records show he was arrested seven more times on charges that included cocaine possession, burglary and grand theft.
In August 2014, he mailed a prosecutor a short note. He referenced a murder case against Washington Beltran, a semi-homeless, mentally ill man who claimed self-defense in a 2013 fatal stabbing outside a Brandon storage facility.
“I would like to help you,” Means wrote.
A few weeks later, he entered an open guilty plea to a theft charge. He was released on bond while awaiting sentencing, but that November he failed to show for a required court date. He was picked up the next month on a new theft charge.
He wrote another letter.
“I’d like to say that I didn’t intentionally blow off my court date,” he wrote. “I intend to make it up to you. ... I am still on board. But I have new info. It’s on a bank robbery. A case your office is working on.”
He referenced the case of a serial robber who’d passed demand notes at banks before fleeing with money. Jailed with the suspect, Means suggested the state could arrange a controlled phone call to trick the defendant into revealing where he’d hidden the stolen cash.
“He gets wrapped up, you get credit within your office for recovering a portion of the money,” Means wrote. “I get more solid information before I testify (at) your (murder) trial, continuing to build my ability to provide A-1 solid info and I somewhat make it up to you. So please work with me here.”
It does not appear from court records that the state took up Means on his offer.
He wrote another letter in February 2015. He said he was in “dire straits,” complained that the prosecutor whom he had written before had refused to allow his release, asserted he was not a “lost cause,” and mentioned health problems.
“Even with the events surrounding me, I feel I have a value to everyone’s cases,” he wrote.
He promised “intel” that would bring arrests, “iron-clad convictions” and “hundreds of thousands of dollars in drugs off the streets.”
“I am willing to put it all on the line and do something for my freedom,” he wrote.
He listed several other people who he claimed to have incriminating information on, noting the prosecutors assigned to their cases. He said he wanted to avoid prison time.
“Please talk to whoever to get me home,” he wrote. “I will make all parties winners.”
‘Ruining people’s lives with hearsay’
In the next few years, Means popped up in cases at least four more times.
June 2015. The case of David Choppa. He was charged with murder in a man’s drug-related killing.
Means told investigators Choppa had sought his legal advice in jail and eventually revealed details of the crime. Choppa pleaded guilty in April 2016 to a manslaughter charge in exchange for an 18-year sentence. He died in prison in 2019.
December 2015. The case of Rohan Perry. He was accused of attempted murder in an east Tampa shooting. In a letter to prosecutors, Means mentioned Perry told him what happened. But four months later, he wrote another letter taking it back, saying everything he’d heard was based on rumors and street gossip.
“Although I’d reached out to the state in good faith, I can’t jeopardize my value (with) misinformation I can’t attest to,” he wrote.
Perry would be found not guilty of attempted murder. He served a short sentence on a related gun charge. Before his release last year, he described Means in a response to a reporter’s email as “ruining people’s lives with hearsay.”
May 2017. The case of Tyrell and Donnell Mingo and Jason Newson. The three were accused in the beating death of a man on an East Tampa street. Records indicate Means encountered all three while in jail. The three later negotiated plea deals to manslaughter charges.
May 2017. The case of Parish Jordan. He was one of two men suspected in a Temple Terrace home invasion robbery in which a man was shot and killed. Means told detectives he’d spoken with Jordan when they shared a holding cell at the Hillsborough courthouse. He said Jordan told him his codefendant was not involved in the crime.
When called to testify at a hearing in the codefendant’s case later that year, Means invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He would say in court and later in a deposition that he did so on his lawyer’s advice to avoid discussing his own pending charges.
Jordan made a plea deal in 2019 for a 30-year sentence. In a recent phone call from state prison, he told the Times he thinks Means obtained information about the case from his codefendant.
“I never spoke to him,” he said.
A ‘failure of the system’
Just before 1 a.m. on July 21, 2018, Tampa police in the area of E 38th Avenue and N 25th Street stopped a gray Acura bearing a license plate that belonged to another car. They found Means in the driver’s seat and a bag that held a pound of marijuana on the driver’s-side floorboard. He was booked in jail on a felony marijuana charge and probation violations tied to five previous theft convictions.
A state probation officer wrote in a report that through the years Means had accumulated more than a dozen violations and had been serving a probation sentence for less than six weeks before getting arrested again. The officer recommended that he be sent to prison for 38 months.
“This offender has continuously made decisions and committed acts that are intolerable to the nature of supervision,” Officer C.L. Hawkins wrote, “and does not currently meet the suitability nor trustworthiness to remain on any form of supervision.”
The following November, Means pleaded guilty. In the court hearing, a prosecutor and defense attorney spoke with the judge privately.
After conferring with them, Judge Christopher Nash put off sentencing until February. He told Means to stay in daily contact with a person identified in court only as “Detective Miller,” and to comply with drug treatment while awaiting sentencing.
Two months later, Means testified in the murder trial of Washington Beltran, who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Means returned to court in February, but the lawyers asked to put off sentencing one more time.
“He just testified in a murder case a few weeks ago,” defense lawyer Justin Jacobson told the judge. A prosecutor mentioned the detective wanted more time with Means. They again asked to speak privately. When they came back, the judge again delayed sentencing.
Back in court May 8, the prosecutor told the judge the state was fine with having Means continue on probation. The judge obliged.
If he had been sent to prison, as the probation officer recommended, Means likely would still have been locked up on Feb. 28, 2021.
That night, Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies tried to stop a white U-Haul van after they saw it dart out of a parking lot into traffic along Citrus Park Drive west of the Veterans Expressway. The deputies backed off as the van sped east along Gunn Highway. At Normandie Road, the van blew through a red light and slammed into a Toyota Highlander that was heading north through the intersection.
Witnesses saw a man, later identified as Means, walking away from the van, according to court records. Deputies spotted him at a Shell station less than a mile away. Means ran from them. Sweaty and breathless, he was tackled and wrestled into handcuffs.
Inside the crashed van, investigators found an open Natural Ice beer can, glass pipes and a rock of crack cocaine. A woman who’d been in the van with Means said she’d seen him smoke crack earlier that day, according to court records.
A passenger in the Toyota, Rafael Domenech Rodriguez, had a broken sternum and ribs. He went into respiratory failure and had a tube placed in his throat. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, his condition declined. He died 10 days later.
A native of Puerto Rico, he had served in the U.S. Coast Guard and retired as a property appraiser for an electric company, according to an online obituary. He moved to Pasco County in 2018 and attended Life Church in Spring Hill. He had a wife named Luciraida, a son, two daughters and seven grandchildren. He was 76.
Warren did not deny that Means got a break for his testimony in 2019. But he noted that the law allows judges to consider a defendant’s cooperation in determining a sentence.
Nevertheless, he said Means’ subsequent arrest was a “failure of the system.”
“It’s troubling anytime we see an innocent life taken by someone who’s previously been in the system,” Warren said. “But the reality is that most criminals who end up taking a life have been in the system at some point before.”
Means has been back in jail for more than a year now. His new charges include DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident involving death. No trial date has been set. If convicted, his maximum sentence could exceed 100 years in prison.
Back to the witness stand
He wrote more letters.
In May, Means mentioned he had been talking with another defendant, Michael Keetley, and taking notes.
Keetley is charged with a 2010 Ruskin shooting that killed two men and injured several others. He awaits a second trial after a jury in 2020 could not decide if he was guilty. Keetley has maintained his innocence.
In a recent phone call from jail, Means declined to answer questions for this story.
“The things I’ve done in my past, I’m not proud of it,” he said, “even if they might have been the right thing.”
In any trial wherein an informant testifies, defense attorneys can question them. When they do, they make the point that there are many ways an informant can gather facts about a case without talking to the accused.
Those confined in one of Hillsborough County’s jail dormitories can visit an in-house kiosk to look up the charges their fellow defendants face and their court dates. Some cases make the news, and the incarcerated can learn details from their jailhouse TV screens, radios or newspapers. It is common for defendants awaiting trial to store their court paperwork in a locker beneath their bunk, which anyone can access.
Means acknowledged as much when he testified last year in the Johnson trial.
In cross examination by Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Beardsley, Means denied he had read Johnson’s case paperwork.
Why had he waited more than 2 1/2 years to tell anyone about Johnson’s jailhouse confession?
“I’d been thinking about it since ‘18,” he said.
“And poof!” Beardsley said. “Just a month before the trial, you decided to write a letter for the first time?”
Beardsley had him reiterate that he has 21 felony convictions, including 12 crimes of dishonesty.
“And you’re not seeking any benefit for being here today?” she asked.
“I don’t know how to answer it any other way, ma’am, but no.”