Paul Skalnik was a widely used jailhouse snitch in Pinnellas County, Florida, and even had a detective speak on his behalf during a parole board hearing.
He served briefly as a cop in Austin, Texas and retired after he was caught for writing bad checks. Skalnik’s work as a confidential informant resulted in dozens of guilty pleas and convictions, which are now under fire. ABC 20/20 is looking into his testimony in a two-hour episode, “The Perfect Liar.” The case looks into the case of James Dailey, who is on death row following Skalnik’s testimony. The episode airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time Friday, October 23, 2020 on ABC.
Dailey wasn’t the only person who was sentenced to death in a case that relied on Skalnik’s information or testimony. Also sentenced to death were Kenneth Gardner, Richard Cooper and Jason Walton.
ABC 20/20 is examining the case on “The Perfect Liar,” a two-hour episode that looks into the use of confidential informants in jail. The episode airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time Friday, October 23, 2020.
Here’s what you need to know:
Paul Skalnik’s Work as an Informant Supplied Information in 35 Cases & Sent 4 People to Death Row
THIS STORY should shake your faith in our legal system: Paul Skalnik is a “con man” & ex-cop who cheated his wives, ratted on strangers, & racked up arrests. Hard to fathom a less credible informant – but there’s a man on death row rn on his testimony
— Keri Blakinger (@keribla) December 4, 2019
Skalnik became one of the most prolific jailhouse informants in history. His testimony over the years sent four people to death row, according to The New York Times Magazine. In 1984, he sent a letter to Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida requesting favorable treatment.
“I have placed 34 individuals in prison, including four on death row,” the letter said.
In only six years, from 1981 to 1987, he supplied information or provided testimony in 37 cases in Pinellas County, Florida, alone. In 18 of those cases, a suspect was under indictment for murder. Most of the cases resulted in convictions or plea deals, the article said.
Dailey was scheduled for execution in November 7, 2020, but was granted a limited stay of execution, according to The Innocence Project. He remains on death row as his attorneys fight his case.
Death Sentences Were Overturned for Two Defendants Involving Skalnik Supplying Information
Maybe the best piece ever written about a jailhouse snitch: @pamelacolloff 's searing, unforgettable portrait of Paul Skalnik, the pathological informant used by FL prosecutors even as he preyed upon children and committed other harmful crimes…. https://t.co/x7KdNBz6Ne
— The Open File (@openfilesite) December 4, 2019
Skalnik testified in a 1982 triple-murder that sent two defendants to death row. In 2020, only one of those two defendants remains on death row, and the other is sentenced to life in prison. Steven Fridella, Bobby Martindale and Gary Petersen were killed with a shotgun in a case that became known as the “High Point Murders” in Pinellas County. Richard Michael Cooper was granted a new trial in 2011 following a court decision that determined a jury should have heard about the abuse he suffered as a child. You can read the court decision in full here.
The decision addresses Skalnik’s testimony in great detail, but said it was not a factor in the decision. He testified in the penalty phase of the trial.
Footnotes of the court decision said:
Because Cooper is entitled to relief from the death sentence on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase for failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence, we need not decide whether trial counsel was ineffective in his investigation and cross-examination of state witness Paul Skalnik during the penalty phase, or whether direct appeal counsel rendered ineffective assistance by filing a brief that failed to raise a Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 105 S.Ct. 2633 (1985), violation during Cooper’s penalty phase, as both issues deal with the penalty phase of Cooper’s trial.
One of Cooper’s two co-defendants in the triple murder, Jason Walton, remains on death row, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Cooper’s attorneys accused Walton of being the ringleader of the group who committed the brutal murders.
“Based on the known history of informant convict felon Paul Skalnik, I do not see the fairness in executing James Dailey,” says a retired special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville division.
— Opinion by Tampa Bay Times (@TBTimes_Opinion) January 4, 2020
“…three victims were found lying face down with their wrists bound, and each had been shot at close range with a shotgun. An 8-year-old boy was found unharmed but had been locked in a bathroom,” the article said.
The first time Skalnik told authorities he heard a murder confession was from his cellmate, Kenneth Gardner, in 1983, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Skalnik claimed Gardner told him, “I killed him, but they’ll never prove it.” The line was not recorded, and Skalnik’s notes were “lost or destroyed.” Skalnik spent three years on death row before his conviction was overturned. He later pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to life in prison.