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

By a vote of 6-1, the court upheld Dailey’s conviction, ruling that a sworn declaration by Dailey’s co-defendant Jack Pearcy that he alone had committed the murder was inadmissible and could not provide a legal basis for a new trial. The court also rejected Dailey’s claim that prosecutors knowingly elicited false testimony from their lead witness, Paul Skalnik, that Skalnik 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.

Justice Jorge Labarga strenuously dissented, reminding his colleagues that the Florida Supreme Court had frequently upheld the death sentences and convictions of people who were later exonerated. Citing Florida’s 30 death-row exonerations — the most of any state — Labarga wrote, “Thirty people 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.”

Labarga also drew attention to the unreliability of jailhouse informant testimony, which was the basis of Dailey’s conviction, writing that Dailey’s conviction and death sentence “exist under a cloud of unreliable inmate testimony.” He argued that the risk of executing an innocent man overcame the judiciary’s interest in finality: “While finality in judicial proceedings is important to the function of the judicial branch, that interest can never overwhelm the imperative that the death penalty not be wrongly imposed.”

An editorial in the Sun Sentinel echoed Justice Labarga’s arguments, stating that the six justices who voted to uphold Dailey’s conviction “have no qualms about executing a man whose conviction depends totally on the word of untrustworthy jailhouse informants.” The editorial also highlighted the unfairness of Dailey’s and Pearcy’s disproportionate sentences: “Dailey’s is a case of two similar defendants with grossly disparate fates. The one whose guilt is not in dispute is serving life by the grace of a merciful judge and jury. The other, Dailey, would not have been convicted but for the dubious testimony of three jailhouse informants.” It cites data from the National Registry of Exonerations showing that false testimony from jailhouse informants contributed to nearly a quarter (23%) of death-row exonerations. The Sun Sentinel called for Dailey’s death sentence to be commuted, writing that “the state has failed for 34 years to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty.”


Editorial, Florida is about to exe­cute a man who should not have been con­vict­ed, Sun Sentinel, October 1, 2021; Dan Sullivan, Florida Supreme Court upholds James Dailey’s death sen­tence, Tampa Bay Times, September 232021.

Read the Florida Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Dailey v. State.