Death Penalty

An Unreliable Jailhouse Informant May Have Sent an Innocent Florida Man to Death Row

James Dailey is running out of options to prove his innocence.

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James Dailey has long maintained that he didn't murder Shelly Boggio in 1985. No physical evidence ties him to the case, and there's good reason to think the man who originally pointed the finger at Dailey is the actual killer. A story by Pamela Colloff, published by ProPublica and The New York Times, shows how an unreliable jailhouse informant may have doomed an innocent man to the execution chamber in Florida.

On May 6, 1985, Boggio's nude body was found floating in a Pinellas County waterway; she had been stabbed several times. Dailey and his roommate, Jack Pearcy, became subjects of interest in the case. Pearcy has a history of violence against women. On the last day of her life, Pearcy took Boggio to a bar near the Intracoastal Waterway after spending an afternoon drinking and smoking weed at his apartment.

Though he admitted to stabbing Boggio at least once and provided intimate details of the crime, Pearcy insisted that Dailey was the actual murderer. Pearcy claimed that Dailey joined the pair before they reached the water that night.

Pearcy, who is serving life in prison, has since confessed four times that he was solely responsible for Boggio's death. He also told two other inmates that Dailey was innocent. Pearcy owned a knife consistent with the stab wounds, knew where investigators could find its sheath, and was the only person who eyewitnesses saw with Boggio the night she was murdered.

Yet Dailey's fate was sealed by three jailhouse informants, including one Paul Skalnik. Skalnik was one of the county's most prolific jailhouse informants, testifying in at least 37 cases. Many of those trials ended in convictions or plea deals; four ended with death sentences. Though he spent his days in protective custody, he told investigators that he managed to obtain a confession from Dailey while passing by his cell.

Pearcy refused to testify against Dailey in court, so Skalnik took the stand, testifying that Dailey had confessed to the murder while asking for legal advice. Detective John Halliday vouched for Skalnik because they had worked together before.

Jailhouse informants have an incentive to tell prosecutors what they want to hear, since their cooperation could help with their own cases. After the two other inmates claimed that they heard Dailey admit to the murder, a third later said that they concocted their stories in an effort to get their own sentences reduced. (They succeeded.) The third inmate also said police showed him news clippings of the crime in hopes that he would testify against Dailey. He refused.

Though Skalnik assured the jury that he was receiving nothing for his testimony, he was released five days after Dailey was sentenced to death.

After serving a sentence for grand theft, Skalnik was paroled in March 1985. He quickly violated his parole with various financial cons and returned to jail. Though he was identified as a flight risk, a parole violator, and was called a "danger to society" by his parole officer, a Florida Parole and Probation Commission memo said he was released due to his "cooperation with the State Attorney's Office in the first-degree murder trial." Public records show several other instances where Skalnik received benefits for his help in other trials despite assessments that he was a "con artist of the highest degree." Prosecutors once dismissed a 1982 charge for lewd and lascivious conduct involving a 12-year-old girl. Neither those charges nor their dismissals were mentioned to the jury in Dailey's case.

There are other reasons to question Skalnik's honesty. When Colloff interviewed him, he claimed that he'd been shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War. After obtaining his military records, Colloff found that Skalnik was not on combat duty during Vietnam, and did not serve overseas at all.

Dailey was set to die on November 7, but U.S. District Judge William Jung temporarily stayed his execution in October to give lawyers more time to present their case. Yesterday Jung rejected the new appeals.

Dailey's attorney, Josh Dubin, tells Reason he is asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to grant a clemency hearing to argue the prisoner's innocence. A coalition of local supporters—including the Innocence Project of Florida, the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, a former prosecutor, and a collection of Florida death row exonerees—is also asking the state to exonerate Dailey before it's too late.

NEXT: National Security Surveillance Apologists Are Starting to See the Light

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  1. In the movie, Skalnik will be played by Jon Lovitz.

    1. No … you are wrong …. he will be played by Robert De Niro…

  2. Unlike some of the anti-death penalty cases that Zuri has previously brought up, I have to admit, this case seems pretty fucked.
    Although, I haven’t read much about this case, and it could be that there is a lot more spin going on here than meets the eye.

    1. Prosecutors, judges, and sheriffs especially when they are elected, have every incentive to bend the rules and use dubious tactics to win their case. Even a person who they know is completely innocent is a trophy and gives them bragging rights when this person ends up in the chair.

      1. The article makes clear the prosecutors were polishing-up their score – so high a percent of guilty verdicts, so high a percent of death penalties. The reason they went so hard against Dailey was Pearcy’s confession precluded capital punishment. They wanted at least one death penalty for the crime and he was all they had.

        It is absolutely impossible any detective or prosecutor could have believed Skalnik’s testimony legitimate – he barely had any contact with the last score or so of inmates who supposedly “confessed” to him. Jail-house informants are the most grotesquely fraudulent trick in a prosecutor’s playbook; this guy Skalnik is probably the all-time fraud of jail-house informants. Reading the account made my skin crawl.

  3. A coalition of local supporters…is also asking the state to exonerate Dailey before it’s too late.

    Is one man’s life really worth exposing to the world the criminal justice system’s fallibility and how easily and seemingly casually law enforcement can pervert the cause of justice?

    1. I know that’s sarcasm, but hell yes it is.

  4. Damn. Maybe it’s time we got a constitution passed.

  5. Jailhouse informants should be illegal. Every incentive to lie. They’re literally using convicted criminals to make their case. In what universe to people on trial for a crime go blabbing their mouths about their crimes, to untrustworthy thieves, rapists, and murderers? It just doesn’t happen, and definitely not to the degree that prosecutors seem to want to rely on them. A preponderance of of wrongful conviction cases involve the same repeated elements, and jailhouse informants are among the most common.

  6. We’re way past the point of trusting jailhouse snitches, especially one that has testified in 38 cases.

    I’ll be honest, after a bit of research I tired of hearing about the RULE OF LAW. And we have every reason to distrust the concept.

    Here’s what opened my eyes
    A) legal fiction = our name spelled in all CAPS
    B) legal person = you, the living flesh standing in court
    C) natural person = groveling for permission
    D) presumption = the state’s assertion that you are actually the legal person presented with an ALL CAPS IDENTIFICATION. Which went uncontested, is now considered to be a fact = legal fiction

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