The troubling case of a death row inmate convicted of a 1985 Pinellas County murder illustrates why Florida should abolish the death penalty. It costs too much, it takes too long and there is too much doubt about his guilt to impose a punishment that cannot be reversed. A federal judge has granted a temporary stay of execution, and the governor and Cabinet should review his case in public.
James Dailey is 73 years old and isn’t going anywhere. He has been in prison for decades for the horrific murder of 14-year-old Shelly Elizabeth Boggio, whose body was found in May 1985 in the Intracoastal Waterway in Indian Rocks Beach. Dailey has consistently denied he is responsible for her death, and his roommate who implicated him and is serving a life sentence now says he alone was responsible. Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a death warrant and set Dailey’s execution for Nov. 7.
Fortunately, U.S. District Judge William Jung on Wednesday granted a stay until Dec. 30 to give Dailey’s new federal attorneys more time to research the case. The state should not appeal the decision. Instead, the governor and the Cabinet should meet as the state clemency board, discuss the case in public and consider commuting Dailey’s sentence to life in prison.
Opposition to the death penalty does not imply disregard for the victim or their families, a lack of outrage about the murder, or an unwillingness to hold the guilty accountable for taking someone else’s life. Like so many other death penalty cases, this one has dragged on far too long to bring closure in a timely fashion. Shelly was killed in 1985. Dailey was first sentenced to death in 1987, and after that sentence was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court because of judicial errors he was sentenced to death a second time in 1993. Subsequent appeals have been denied by the state Supreme Court on procedural issues. Curiously, DeSantis signed a death warrant last month even as the court was considering another appeal that has since been denied. Now there are appeals in federal court.
Even more concerning than the lack of timely closure in death penalty cases is the potential for executing someone who may be innocent. There is reason for doubt in this case. There is no DNA evidence. There is no eyewitness or physical evidence connecting Dailey to Shelly’s murder. Instead, the case relied heavily on jailhouse informants testifying about what Dailey told them about the murder. "It was a circumstantial case, it’s not like there was an upstanding citizen eyewitness to the case,'' retired prosecutor Beverly Andringa told the Tampa Bay Times last month. "So speculation is all we have as to what happened.''
Jailhouse informants are notoriously unreliable. The National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 100 murder cases where the person who was exonerated had been convicted based at least in part on testimony from jailhouse informants. Dailey’s team argues that one of the jailhouse informants who testified against Dailey was a former police officer with a long criminal record and "an established history of pathological deception.'' They say Andringa later testified she would not use that informant again as a witness because she could not have enough faith he would give truthful testimony.
It is not certain that Dailey did not kill Shelly Boggio nearly 35 years ago. But there is some doubt about his guilt -- and it is certain that the State of Florida could not correct its mistake if it executes an innocent man.
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