Calling his evidence of innocence either immaterial or inadmissible, the Florida Supreme Court on September 23, 2021 denied death-row prisoner James Dailey’s post-conviction challenge to his conviction for the 1985 murder of a teenage girl.

Over a strong dissent by Justice Jorge Labarga, the Court ruled that a sworn declaration by Jack Pearcy, later recanted, that he alone had committed the murder, was inadmissible and could not provide a legal basis to overturn Dailey’s conviction. It also rejected Dailey’s claim that prosecutors knowingly elicited false testimony from their lead witness, Paul Skalnik, that he had never been charged with any crime of violence and then failed to correct Skalnik’s testimony that he had never faced charges of rape or murder and had “no physical violence in my life.” The court said that Dailey’s discovery that his prosecutor had written notes about Skalnik’s testimony in which he crossed out the words “sexual assault(s)” did not constitute new evidence because Dailey was previously aware of the notes, though not their author, and Skalnik had been impeached on other matters.

In dissent, Justice Labarga noted that “a significant component of the State’s case” rested on testimony from jailhouse informants that was unsupported by any forensic evidence. Dailey’s conviction and death sentence, he said, were compromised by “a cloud of unreliable inmate testimony.” Despite Pearcy’s subsequent refusal to repeat his confession in court or deposition testimony, Labarga said, his “admission to being solely responsible for the murder, coupled with the lack of substantial independent evidence to corroborate the testimony of the jailhouse informants,” sufficiently undermined the case against Dailey.

“While finality in judicial proceedings is important to the function of the judicial branch,” Labarga wrote, “that interest can never overwhelm the imperative that the death penalty not be wrongly imposed. Since Florida reinstated the death penalty in 1972, thirty people have been exonerated from death row [who] … would have eventually been put to death for murders they did not commit. This number of exonerations, the highest in the nation, affirms why it is so important to get this case right,” he said.


Dan Sullivan, Florida Supreme Court upholds James Dailey’s death sen­tence, Tampa Bay Times, September 232021.