On October 23, 2019, two weeks before his scheduled execution, Florida death row prisoner James Dailey received a temporary stay from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The federal judge agreed that Mr. Dailey’s new counsel – appointed the month before – needed more time to investigate and file claims. The stay expired on December 30, 2019, leaving Governor Ron DeSantis free to set a new execution date.
Mr. Dailey was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of a teenage girl in Tallahassee. His conviction and sentence depended primarily on co-defendant and informant testimony, with no eyewitnesses or forensic evidence ever connecting him to the crime. Since his conviction, the validity of the case against Mr. Dailey has come under fire. His co-defendant, Jack Pearcy, has repeatedly admitted to being the sole perpetrator, and the reliability of the informant, Paul Skalnik, has been called into question. Mr. Skalnik has an extensive history as a jailhouse informant, providing testimony in dozens of cases in exchange for leniency on his own charges, including in four cases that yielded death sentences. Law enforcement in other jurisdictions have labeled him a con artist. Before Mr. Dailey’s execution was stayed, the ABA submitted a letter in support of clemency, citing these troubling doubts about Mr. Dailey’s guilt.
In the months following the stay of execution, Mr. Dailey has sought state and federal review of his claims. In January, a three-judge panel for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Mr. Dailey’s application to file a successive habeas petition in order to raise his actual innocence claim. The court held Mr. Dailey had not met the burden of demonstrating actual innocence and he had failed to assert a new claim, because any new evidence Mr. Dailey submitted was merely supportive of the innocence claim he asserted in 2007.
Meanwhile, following the Florida Supreme Court’s denial of his successive post-conviction relief motion, Mr. Daily filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Dailey’s Supreme Court petition has received backing from diverse allies. Amicus briefs in support of certiorari have been filed by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, eight former and current prosecutors and attorneys general, and the Florida and United States Conferences of Catholic Bishops. Additionally, an interfaith coalition recently sent a letter to Governor DeSantis asking for clemency.
Also in January, Mr. Dailey filed a Second Successive Motion to Vacate Judgment of Conviction and Sentence of Death after Death Warrant Signed in Pinellas County Circuit Court. The motion includes a signed statement from Mr. Pearcy stating that he was solely responsible for the murder. Mr. Pearcy has repeatedly admitted he acted alone, in multiple sworn statements and in oral confessions to fellow prisoners, spanning more than two decades. The petition also argues that prosecutors violated Mr. Dailey’s rights by failing to correct the record when Mr. Skalnik, the jailhouse informant, misrepresented his criminal history while testifying. The circuit court judge responded by issuing an oral order granting Mr. Dailey’s request for an evidentiary hearing, which took place on March 5th. During the March 5 evidentiary hearing, Mr. Pearcy refused to testify, marking the second time since 2017 that Mr. Pearcy has declined to answer questions about the affidavits before a judge. Pointing to a series of phone calls made by Mr. Pearcy’s mother to him in prison, Mr. Dailey’s attorney argued that his refusal to testify was the result of pressure by his family. Meanwhile, in another Florida case raising a claim of actual innocence, the Florida Supreme Court made clear its view that innocence is not an independent ground for relief from a death sentence.