Paul Skalnik, a convicted con man whose testimony sent four people to death row, died of natural causes in March, 2020, following a lengthy stay in a nursing home in Texas.
Skalnik briefly served as a police officer in the early 1970s and retired after a series of creditors caught up to him for writing bad checks, according to a 1987 article in the Tampa Bay Times. He became a private eye, and when he was serving time in jail for theft and fraud charges, he told investigators he was collecting confessions from other inmates, including in cases that would eventually send suspects to death row.
ABC 20/20 is examining Skalnik’s testimony and the use of confidential informants in its episode, “The Perfect Liar.” Reporters take a deep look into the case of James Dailey, one of the inmates who Skalnik claimed confessed to him in jail. Dailey is now on death row. The two-hour episode airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time on ABC.
Here’s what you need to know:
Skalnik Talked to Reporters From a Nursing Home Bed Before His Death
Skalnik died in March, 2020, after a grave illness. He had been living in a nursing home in Corsicana, a town in Eastern Texas. Skalnik spoke to reporters in October 2019 and in January 2020, months before his death. In those interviews, he held to his previous statements that his testimony on jailhouse confessions was true.
“Earlier this fall, I went to see Skalnik in a nursing home in the East Texas town of Corsicana. I found him alone in a drab, cluttered room where the blinds were drawn and a television was on low,” Reporter Pamela Colloff wrote for The New York Times Magazine. “He had been released from prison in June, after having romanced the mother of another inmate, persuading her to fill his commissary account each week. He lay in bed, shirtless, his thinning gray hair uncombed. Even flat on his back, he cut a shockingly large, Falstaffian figure. He was bedridden and ill — though with what, he did not say. Every so often, nurses turned him so that he did not develop bedsores, and he sometimes grimaced in pain as he spoke. ‘I think I’m going to die,’ he whispered.”
Skalnik told her stories about his life, saying his two convictions of child molestation were based on a false accusation, saying that the girls lied to authorities. On his shoulder was a tattoo that said “From Texas to Vietnam.” He told the reporter a scar on his knee was from being shot down over Laos in the Vietnam War, but his military records showed he never served in combat and never went overseas.
In a letter to a judge in 1983, he said he earned congressional appointments to the U.S. Merchant Marine and Coast Guard academies. But police in Austin told the Tampa Bay Times in 1987 he attended a New Mexico military institute for two years and dropped out of the Marines’ officer candidate school after a month.
Skalnik Told Reporters He Stood By His Testimony in the Months Before His Death
Skalnik stuck to his story with reporters on his death bed. Reporter Pamela Colloff pressed Skalnik about his testimony, in an article for The New York Times Magazine. She interviewed him in December 2019. When asked about his testimony in many cases over the years, he insisted he was truthful.
“I never lied on the stand,” he said. “At least to the best of my knowledge.”
Colloff told him Freddie Gaines was still in prison, 36 years after Skalnik testified Gaines told him about stabbing his girlfriend’s ex in a bar fight.
“I think that was a crime of passion,” Skalnik said. “He doesn’t need life. I’d give him 10 and let him go home.”
Colloff pointed out it was Skalnik’s testimony that established the crime was premeditated. He said “no” when she asked if Gaines told him he plotted the killing, then added, “I won’t retract what I said. Whatever I testified to was fact.”
There is no statute of limitations on perjury in Florida, where Skalnik testified against Gaines, the article noted.
ABC 20/20 also interviewed Skalnik in the nursing home. When asked if he ever lied on the stand, he responded, “there’s a time and a place to talk.”
When asked if he had any regrets, he said “Not to my knowledge.”