Death row inmate's case raises questions about jailhouse informants

James Dailey was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of a teen girl but claims he's innocent. Paul Skalnik, a fellow inmate and conman, testified that Dailey confessed to the murder while in jail.
9:41 | 03/05/20

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Transcript for Death row inmate's case raises questions about jailhouse informants
It has been more than three decades since a battle creek teenager was brutally murdered in Florida. New evidence that will exonerate him. How much time have you spent in prison. 34 years. But on death row, 32 and a half years. He is convicted of the stabbing and drowning of this woman. I'm afraid of pending my life in prison for a crime I didn't commit. Reporter: He was scheduled to die by lethal injection last November. He is hoping for a new chance of freedom and showing the pit falls of informants. They've spent months investigating the case. I feel like when there's an ember of truth, if you blow on it, it sort of ignites into a flame if you're dogged enough and you stay on it. Reporter: This story begins on a morning in may 1985 in pin elas Florida. She had 30 or more wounds, most to her arms, through her hands, indicating that it was a fight. She put up a fight. Reporter: That girl is Shelly, her brutal murder stunning central Florida. What does her immersion in the central coastal do to the evidence? No DNA. Most likely, it was a sexual assault involved. She was found floating in the water in a remote patch of land. Reporter: With no physical evidence, it may be impossible to know exactly what happened the night before that gruesome discovery but here's what we do know. Shelly spent her last night with a group that included James day daily who was 38, but also jack peersy. We were driving somewhere, and jack saw Shelly and her sister. They all got in the car. Reporter: Witnesses say Daly and Piercy brought Shelly back to her house. But here is where the stories die verge. A friend staying at the house says he left with Shelly and he says Shelly and peersy dropped him off at a pay phone and went off together. Law enforcement quickly focussed on Piercy because he was the last known to be with her, but Piercy implicated Daly. Mr. Piercy was arrested first and gave statements, made admissions and for the most part putting the onus on James Daly as the main actor. Reporter: But Daly always man maintained he was sleeping. He says he was woken up to go smoke and drink beer at a Piercy is tried first and gets convicted but doesn't get the death penalty like the prosecutors had hoped. With only circumstantial evidence and Daly's trial looming, a detective on the case goes to the pinellas county jail looking for information on Daly. Three would later come forward. You had three jailhouse informants. Wonder if you could tell me how they came on your radar? Like most of them do. We'll get a call from an attorney who will say my client knows is something. He's willing to come talk to you. They're not going to do it because of their civic duty. They're doing it because hopefully down the road there may be something to their benefit. We made it very clear to anyone who ever came forward, we're not promising you anything. We have to see what you have to and we'll discuss that after you testify. And just so you understand, we get these calls all the time. Reporter: One of the inmates who claimed to have information on James Daly was Paul skelnick, a con artist with a long rap sheet, in and out of jail on numerous charges. He had been an informant on dozens of previous cases. This time he was in on grand theft charges, facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Daly had been moved into the same wing of the jail as skelnick. In order to get a confession -- He was there. He was originally in another portion of the jail. And just, just so you understand, the jury heard all of this. They had the ability to evaluate whether he had the motivation to lie, whether he had the act to, meaning skelnick, to get these statements from him. Never said a word to him in my life. Reporter: Skelnick would become the state's tar star witness. Daly confessed to his role in the attack on Shelly, offering lurid details of the grizzly stabbing. And I had to sit there in the courtroom and listen to him say I confessed all these horrible things to him. And I never said anything to him. Reporter: Skelnick is the only witness who have claimed to have heard a detailed confession from Daly. Since there was no physical evidence tying Daly to the murder, skelnick's testimony was considered pivotal for a conviction. But according to the latest motion, skelnick also falsely testified about his own past, denying on the stand that he had ever been charged with physical violence, when, in fact, five years earlier he'd been charged with a sexual assault of a minor. Prosecutor Robert Hayman says he was aware of that charge, which was dismissed in a plea deal, but it did not deter the state from calling skalnick to the stand. Did you feel he was credible? We vetted him. I know he's under attack as a professional snitch. That word is a characterization more than anything. We checked him out. He was in proximity for a short period of time to speak with Daly. Reporter: Just five days after Daly is convicted and sentenced to death, skalnick is released without bail, ahead of his trial for grand theft. He skips town. Over time he is charged with another sexual assault on a minor, the victim a 14 year old girl. Skalnick would plead no contest to sexual assault of a child and serve at any years in prison. I was able to reach skalnick by phone just as I left the prison after the interview with day lay. Paul is in a nursing home. How are you? There are lots of inmates up and down Florida saying they're in prison because of you. You put them there by, by testifying against them in court. Well, that's life. Reporter: Did you ever falsify -- Hey, hey, hey, hey. Reporter: Yes, sir. Hold it. I saw we were heading down the wrong path. I could feel T. Reporter: According to press reports, skalnick has maintained his testimony in Daly's trial was truthful. But once the conversation turns to his role as a jailhouse informant, skalnick says he'd prefer to talk in person. But just days later he is is removed from that nursing home. The manager there telling ABC it was because skelnick did not disclose his past. He is now living on borrowed time. His legal team is still building its case. His new execution date could be set at any time. Did you murder Shelly? No, I did not. I had nothing to do with her death whatsoever. Have I felt guilt from it? Absolutely. I wish I could have done something to stop it. I didn't know, I thought he was taking her home. Reporter: According to the national registry of exonerations,200 convictions have been overturned, including 27 who were sentenced to death. There's an evidentiary hearing scheduled tomorrow in the case and jack Piercy is expected to be called as a witness. If we put Daly to death that sends a clear message to the public that our criminal justice system will not hesitate to use a habitual con man and a known fraud in Paul skalnick to make cases. If that doesn't make your blood kurdle, I don't know what will.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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