100th Execution or 30th Exoneration? Florida Sets Execution Date for 73-Year-Old Military Veteran Who May Be Innocent

Florida has scheduled the execution of 73-year-old James Dailey (pictured) for November 7, 2019, despite substantial evidence that he had no involvement in the killing, including a statement by the admitted killer, Daley’s co-defendant, that he had acted alone. Dailey stands to be either the 100 death-row prisoner put to death by Florida since executions resumed in the 1970s or the state’s 30th death-row exoneree.

Dailey was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1985 killing of 14-year-old Shelley Boggio. The prosecution admitted to the jury at trial that no “physical evidence,” “no fingerprints,” and “no hair or fibers” linked Dailey—who served one tour of duty in Korea and three more in Vietnam—to the crime. Instead, he was convicted based on the testimony of self-interested witnesses, including the later-recanted testimony of his co-defendant, Jack Pearcy, and testimony from three jailhouse informants whom police provided information about the murders and who received reduced charges for saying Dailey had confessed to them.

Official misconduct and false accusation are the leading causes of wrongful capital convictions. A DPIC review found that at least one of those factors has been present in at least 18 of the 29 cases since 1973 in which wrongfully convicted Florida death row prisoners have later been exonerated. An analysis by the Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Convictions of the first 111 death-row exonerations found that false “snitch testimony” had contributed to 45.9% of those wrongful capital convictions.

At the time of Boggio’s murder, Dailey lived in an extra room at the home Pearcy shared with his girlfriend. A knife belonging to Pearcy was found near Boggio’s body, but when he was questioned about the crime, he told police that Dailey had killed her. Pearcy was tried for the crime first and convicted, but the jury rejected a death sentence and recommended life. According to Dailey’s attorneys, “The murder was gruesome and the state was under intense pressure to obtain the death penalty against the two men it elected to charge. This pressure only intensified after Pearcy’s jury recommended life, not death. But the state was aware that it did not have sufficient evidence to secure even a conviction against Dailey, let alone a death sentence.”

One month after Pearcy’s trial, a detective visited prisoners in the unit in which Dailey was incarcerated awaiting trial. The prisoners say the detective showed them news articles about the murder and asked them if Dailey had told them anything about the case. Just days later, three men came forward claiming that Dailey had confessed to the killing. Each of the men received benefits from the state in exchange for their testimony, but testified falsely that they had not received any preferential treatment.

One of those men, Paul Skalnik, was a former police officer who was a prosecution informant in at least six cases. Dailey’s lawyers described Skalnik as “a notorious snitch with an established history of pathological deception including at least twenty-five convictions for crimes of dishonesty.” Skalnik, who claimed at trial that the charges against him “were grand theft, counselor, not murder, not rape, no physical violence in my life,” had in fact been charged in 1982 with “lewd and lascivious conduct involving a 12-year-old girl.” His cooperation in other cases had resulted in prosecutors dropping those charges.

Perhaps most significantly, Pearcy recanted his statements that Dailey had helped him murder Boggio. On April 20, 2017, he signed an affidavit stating, “James Dailey was not present when Shelly Boggio was killed. I alone am responsible for Shelly Boggio’s death.” This was at least the fourth time he had made such an admission. On three occasions spanning twenty years, Pearcy told fellow prisoners that he had committed the crime himself, and that Dailey had nothing to do with it. Seth Miller, one of Dailey’s attorneys and director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said, “Jack Pearcy, a man with a history of violence against women, has admitted at least four times that he alone was responsible for the death of Shelly Boggio.” Dailey, on the other hand, had no prior record of violence against women and trial testimony indicated that he nearly died from eleven stab wounds he suffered breaking up a fight involving a friend’s daughter and her boyfriend. “Justice has been served in this case: Mr. Pearcy is serving a life sentence,” Miller said. “The courts and the governor must stop Mr. Dailey’s execution before it’s too late.”

Dailey’s case has drawn support from some conservative and religious groups concerned about a potential wrongful execution. Hannah Cox, National Director of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, wrote that “procedural obstacles” have blocked courts from hearing the evidence of Dailey’s innocence. “Dailey has more going for him than many defendants,” Cox wrote. “He has attorneys — really good ones. He has significant evidence of innocence. He was even excluded as a source of the existing forensic evidence — a hair found in the victim’s hand. He is of sound mind. And the ‘evidence’ used to convict him is shaky at best. But will it be enough to stop the state from executing him? That remains to be seen.”

Rev. Robert Schneider and Sabrina Burton Schultz, members of the Life, Justice and Advocacy Committee of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, called the case “shocking.” In an op-ed for the Tampa Bay Times, the two wrote: “The family of Shelly Boggio suffered an unimaginable loss, and Floridians should pray for their healing and an easing of their pain. Taking another life, especially an innocent one, will only compound this tragedy.” Saying that “[h]aving a culture of life in our state means holding life at all stages sacred,” they urged Gov. DeSantis to “search his heart and do the right thing by withdrawing the death warrant in Mr. Dailey’s case. There is too much doubt to proceed with this execution,” they said.

Sources

Dan Sullivan, Doubts linger, but James Dailey is set to die for mur­der of Pinellas girl, Tampa Bay Times, October 4, 2019; Hannah Cox, How Innocent People Get Convicted and Even Executed, NewsMax​.com, October 9, 2019; Rev. Robert Schneider and Sabrina Burton Schultz, A sched­uled exe­cu­tion trou­bles Tampa Bay Catholics, Tampa Bay Times, October 72019

Read James Dailey’s Motion for Stay of Execution and Motion to Vacate Judgment of Conviction and Sentence After Death Warrant Signed filed in the Florida tri­al court in State v. Dailey on October 82019.