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Will someone else confess in death row inmate James Dailey’s case?

James Dailey has spent three decades on death row for the 1985 murder of a 14-year-old girl. His defense says another man did it. A judge will hear that witness on March 5.
Death row inmate James Dailey, left, awaits execution for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio in Pinellas County. His co-defendant, Jack Pearcy, now says he alone killed the girl. A judge wants to hear his testimony at a March 5 hearing. [Florida Department of Corrections]

LARGO — Jack Pearcy will get the chance to tell a Pinellas-Pasco judge who killed 14-year-old Shelly Boggio in 1985.

James Dailey’s lawyers hope Pearcy will admit that he killed the girl — and not Dailey, the 73-year-old who has spent three decades on Florida’s death row for the crime.

Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa on Thursday granted the defense’s request to have Pearcy testify in an evidentiary hearing set to be held March 5 in a Pinellas County courtroom.

Shelly Elizabeth Boggio was killed at the age of 14 on May 5, 1985. [Tampa Bay Times]

Dailey’s defense attorneys say it was Pearcy who stabbed, choked and drowned the girl, then left her body in the waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, near the Walsingham Road Bridge in Indian Rocks Beach. They obtained a signed confession from the prison inmate in December.

“We’re very pleased with the decision today, and we think this is one more step toward justice for James Dailey," defense attorney Joshua Dubin said. "We are confident that, in taking this one step at a time, the truth will come out.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around how long this man has been incarcerated, for more than three decades, for a crime he didn’t commit.”

Related: Two men are in prison for the same Florida murder. One may be innocent. He also may be executed.

Dailey and Pearcy were roommates when they were implicated in the murder and convicted in 1987. Pearcy told investigators that he saw Dailey stab the girl and drag her into the water and failed to stop him. He also said he may have held the knife and injured the girl. But he did not testify against Dailey.

Dailey received the death penalty. Pearcy was sentenced to life in prison.

The defense plans to depose Pearcy, who is now 64 and being held at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, before the March 5 hearing. Dubin said he believes Pearcy, who has exhausted his own appeals, will tell the truth and confess to the murder.

“I expect him to testify and come clean about this,” the attorney said.

Jack Pearcy, left, and James Dailey, right, as they appeared when they each entered Florida's prison system in 1987. Both men were convicted of taking part in the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio in Pinellas County. Pearcy was sentenced to life, while Dailey received the death penalty. But Dailey's lawyers say Pearcy is the real killer. [Florida Department of Corrections]

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Dailey’s death warrant in September. Dailey won a stay of execution, but that expired in December. The governor could set a new execution date any day now, but Dubin believes he’ll wait.

“I’m confident that what the governor is doing is, he’s allowing this process to play out in the courts," he said, “which is the prudent thing to do given what has come out in this case.”

Dailey’s defense has pointed to several major flaws in the state’s case against him: The evidence is circumstantial and includes the testimony of three jailhouse informants who said they overheard him make incriminating remarks.

One of those informants, Paul Skalnik, is a prolific jailhouse informant and serial con man whose reliability was questioned in an investigative report published in December by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine.

As for Pearcy, his story has shifted since both men were sentenced. In 1993, Pearcy gave a sworn statement saying he had fabricated his story against Dailey at trial.

“I was in custody and they were going to charge me, and I was just trying to get around it, that’s all," he said. "Lay the blame somewhere else.”

Five years later, he wrote to Boggio’s twin sister that Dailey killed Shelly and apologized for failing to stop him. “I’ve beat my head on the wall because I was there & was so high on drugs and drinking that by the time I realized what was going on it was too late,” he wrote.

Two inmates in different prisons both said Pearcy told them Dailey wasn’t the killer.

Then in 2017, Pearcy signed an affidavit saying Dailey wasn’t even at the scene of the murder. Instead, Pearcy said he was the only one "responsible for Shelly Boggio’s death.” But he backtracked when testifying.

Related: As James Dailey faces execution, co-defendant says, ‘I committed the crime alone.'

In December, responding to an email from a Tampa Bay Times reporter, Pearcy wrote that "Dailey killed Shelly by himself.”

But before Dailey’s stay of execution expired Dec. 30, there came a new declaration from Pearcy:

“James Dailey had nothing to do with the murder of Shelly Boggio," it read. "I committed the crime alone.”

Altogether, the defense says Pearcy has confessed five times to the murder. He signed the latest one on Dec. 18, 2019: “James Dailey had nothing to do with the murder of Shelly Boggio. I committed the crime alone. James Dailey was back at the house when I drove Shelly Boggio to the place where I ultimately killed her.”

Jack Pearcy is seen here in a Pinellas County jail mug shot from 2017. [Dan Sullivan]

Siracusa can grant Dailey a new trial. Or the March 5 hearing could be the start of a series of evidentiary hearings where the defense would challenge other aspects of the case against Dailey — particularly Skalnik’s testimony and history.

“I’m hopeful that this is only going to be the tip of the iceberg in setting off a series of proceedings that we think will result in James Dailey getting a new trial at some point,” Dubin said.

Shelly’s body was found May 6, 1985, in the waters beneath the Indian Rocks Beach bridge. A prosecutor later said she “fought like an animal for her life.”

She had been beaten, choked and stabbed 31 times. She had 18 defensive wounds. But the cause of death was drowning: She was held underwater until she died.

Related: Pinellas girl, 14, lived a short, hard life. Her killer is set to die.