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OP-ED: A Florida death row case indicts the entire capital punishment system

Scott Martelle
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
A 2016 poll of Floridians found a clear majority favoring life sentences over death. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The American criminal justice system has never been as good about ferreting out truth and justice as most people would like to think. The system relies on the memories and judgments of human beings, which makes it fallible and, worse, subject to manipulation.

A new in-depth look at the career of a single jailhouse informant brings the system’s failings into sharp relief and stands as an irrefutable indictment of capital punishment and the criminal justice system itself.

The article, by investigative reporter Pamela Colloff (published by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine), who has written before about miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions, follows the life of a two-bit grifter named Paul Skalnik who routinely spun lies about fellow jail inmates — including those facing murder charges — to get special treatment for his own crimes, which included fraud, grand theft and child sexual abuse.

One of the men convicted based on Skalnik’s testimony, James M. Dailey, recently received a reprieve from his scheduled November execution date until Dec. 30 to allow his lawyers time to pursue an appeal based on new evidence that he did not commit murder in 1985.

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As it is, there was no evidence placing Dailey at the murder scene, and the killer, a friend who initially fingered Dailey, has recanted, saying he acted alone.

That leaves the apparent perjury by Skalnik that Dailey — who says he knew Skalnik was a snitch and refused to talk to him in jail — confessed to the crime.

It would be comforting to say, well, this is an aberration. But it’s not. Skalnik’s testimony helped send dozens of people to prison and three others besides Dailey to death row.

But it’s not just Skalnik. At least one in five exonerations involve convictions based at least in part on testimony by jailhouse informants. In murder cases, the National Registry of Exonerations reports at least 70% of exonerations involved lying witnesses and official misconduct.

Florida is the nation’s leader in murder exonerations with 29 cases (Dailey would be the 30th); California, the most populous state, has had five convicted murderers later exonerated. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences estimated that at least 4% of the 2,500 people on death row nationwide are innocent of the crimes for which they have been condemned.

That’s roughly 100 people.

Statistics can be cold. The story of how Skalnik played the system, and credulous investigators and prosecutors, puts it into a human dimension.

As do the stories of Cameron Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna and others put to death despite clear signs of their innocence or, at a minimum, significant doubts as to their guilt.

— Scott Martelle, who joined the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board in 2014, is a veteran journalist and author of six history books.