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Doubts linger, but James Dailey is set to die for murder of Pinellas girl

Lawyers say new testimony raises questions about Dailey’s guilt in the 1985 slaying. Still, a death warrant signed last week has a date of Nov. 7.
James Dailey appears in a Pinellas County courtroom in 1993 to face sentencing in the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Now 73, Dailey is set to be executed for her murder on Nov. 7. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Scott Keeler]
James Dailey appears in a Pinellas County courtroom in 1993 to face sentencing in the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Now 73, Dailey is set to be executed for her murder on Nov. 7. [SCOTT KEELER | Scott Keeler]
Published Oct. 4, 2019
Updated Oct. 4, 2019

James Milton Dailey is scheduled to be executed Nov. 7. His lawyers are scrambling to save his life.

They have argued for two years that new evidence casts doubt on his guilt.

Dailey was found guilty of killing 14-year-old Shelly Boggio in 1985, but his conviction was largely based on the testimony of three jailhouse informants.

No physical evidence or eyewitness testimony linked Dailey to the crime. He became a suspect when he was fingered by his co-defendant, Jack Pearcy, who is serving a life sentence for the crime.

But Dailey’s lawyers say Pearcy has changed his story over the years, telling people that Dailey is innocent.

“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,” said Seth Miller, director of the Innocence Project of Florida and one of the lawyers representing Dailey.

“Justice has been served in this case: Mr. Pearcy is serving a life sentence. The courts and the governor must stop Mr. Dailey’s execution before it’s too late.”

Shelly Elizabeth Boggio, 14, of Kenneth City, was beaten, choked and stabbed before she was held underwater until she drowned. [Tampa Bay Times]

Shelly Boggio’s nude body was found May 6, 1985, in the waters near the Walsingham Road bridge in Indian Rocks Beach. The Kenneth City girl had been beaten, choked and stabbed 31 times before she was held underwater and drowned in the Intracoastal Waterway.

Pearcy was one of the last people seen with the girl. He knew her, having bought marijuana from her family, according to court records. He also knew Dailey, who stayed in an extra bedroom in the house Pearcy shared with his girlfriend.

The night before her death, Boggio and her twin sister, Stacy, and another young woman were hitchhiking in St. Petersburg. They met up with Pearcy, Dailey, and another man, who took them to a bar. They later ended up at Pearcy’s house.

Sometime that night, the other two girls left. Witnesses said they later saw Boggio alone at a bar with a man.

A knife found in the water was said to belong to Pearcy. When questioned later, he told detectives that Dailey killed the girl.

Pearcy’s pregnant girlfriend, and another man who was staying with them, told investigators they saw Pearcy and Dailey arrive home the morning of the murder and that Dailey’s clothes were wet.

Dailey would later testify in a post-conviction hearing that Pearcy had woken him that morning and said he needed to talk. They drove to a lagoon near the Belleaire Causeway, Dailey said.

Pearcy told him that his girlfriend wanted Dailey gone so they could turn his bedroom into a nursery for their child. While they were there, Dailey said, they played with a Frisbee, which he said he had to retrieve after it flew into the water, which explained his wet clothing.

Jack Pearcy, 64, seen here in a 2017 jail mugshot, received a sentence of life in prison for the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. [Dan Sullivan]

Pearcy stood trial in November 1986. The state sought the death penalty but a jury recommended a life sentence.

“The murder was gruesome and the state was under intense pressure to obtain the death penalty against the two men it elected to charge,” Dailey’s lawyers wrote in a recent court paper.

“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.”

In December 1986, a detective visited individually with inmates in the jail pod where Dailey was awaiting trial.

Some would later say they were shown a collection of newspaper articles about Boggio’s murder. They were asked if Dailey had talked about the case.

The inmates all said no. But within days, two men who worked in the jail law library said they had overheard Dailey make incriminating statements. A third man, Paul Skalnik, a former police officer, also claimed Dailey admitted the murder to him.

Skalnik was a prolific informer. And Dailey’s was one of many cases in which he told police he’d learned of incriminating statements. Skalnik’s testimony helped send four men to death row and several more to prison for murder.

But Skalnik was also a con artist, racking up more than 20 convictions for crimes including grand larceny by fraud, according to court documents.

Dailey denied he had ever met Skalnik.

In a 2018 court hearing, one former inmate testified that everyone in the jail knew not to discuss one’s case because other inmates would use the information to “try to help themselves.”

He also claimed to have overheard a conversation between the two inmates who testified at Dailey’s trial. He described them as trying to “collaborate a story” to tell the State Attorney’s Office.

A state prison inmate also testified that Pearcy had told him, on two different occasions years apart, that Dailey was innocent.

In April 2017, defense lawyers obtained an affidavit in which Pearcy swore that Dailey had no involvement in the murder.

“James Dailey was not present when Shelly Boggio was killed,” it read. “I alone am responsible for Shelly Boggio’s death.”

The document bore Pearcy’s signature. It was one of the main pieces of evidence the defense used to persuade a judge to grant a new court hearing. But when Pearcy took the witness stand in January 2018, he said statements in the affidavit were untrue, then invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about specific paragraphs.

A judge rejected Dailey’s bid for a new trial. On Thursday, the high court upheld the circuit judge’s decision.

James Dailey, 73, is set to be executed on Nov. 7 for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Left: Dailey at his 1987 trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. Middle: Dailey in 1993, when he was again sentenced to die. Right: The most current photo of Dailey on Florida's Death Row. [Times]

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Dailey’s death warrant last week.

The governor’s office did not return repeated requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Ashley Moody noted that Dailey is in his third round of appeals and referred a reporter to a letter the office sent the governor the day of the death warrant, detailing the case’s history.

Other death row inmates have won new trials after successive appeals. It happened in 2014 in the case of Paul Hildwin, whose conviction in a 1985 Hernando County murder was overturned after new forensic tests put his guilt in question.

“This case has red flags of innocence,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, not involved in Dailey’s case. “That doesn’t mean he is innocent, but it means there needs to be really serious court proceedings to minimize the likelihood that an innocent man could be executed.”

Innocence Project research has shown that false testimony from jailhouse informants was a factor in 16 percent of death row exonerations, Dunham said.

“A case that has holes in the evidence, and has those holes plugged by jailhouse snitch testimony, is a case that raises a red flag,” Dunham said.

Dailey would be the 100th person executed in Florida since the state renewed the use of capital punishment in 1979. Only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia have executed more than 100 people in the modern era.

Florida, the third most-populous state, leads the nation in the number of people, 29, who have been exonerated while on death row.

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