Commentary: A Florida death row case indicts the entire capital punishment system

Commentary: A Florida death row case indicts the entire capital punishment system

A 2016 poll of Floridians found a clear majority favoring life sentences over death.

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.

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 murders 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.

Visit the Los Angeles Times at


Get Breaking News delivered directly to you.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

LOS ANGELES - I circle around UCLA's Moore Hall for the third time. Security officers block each entrance. Police in riot gear patrol the streets. Metal fences wall off the building from protesters, and barricades separate protesters on the left from those on the right. Everyone prepares for Donald Trump Jr.'s arrival to promote his new book, "Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants ...

was a catastrophic month for my German ancestors. On Aug. 5, the Nazis herded my great-grandfather onto a train in Berlin bound for the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Five days later and 650 miles away in Paris, they rounded up my grandfather, who had tried to escape to France, and forced him onto a transport headed to Auschwitz. Both were exterminated at their final ...

Donald Trump is a few steps from becoming a new kind of autocrat - an elected one. The typical paths to autocracy used to be through revolution or military coup. No longer. Today's strongmen - Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and others - came to power through elections and then used the institutions of ...

The suicide rate in the United States has grown so much that it's contributing to an overall decline in life expectancy. The economic costs of these deaths run into the tens of billions of dollars; the emotional costs to families and communities are immeasurable. But a new study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests a relatively simple way to reduce the number of people ...

By many counts, the trade deal President Trump signed on Jan. 15 with China lacks heft. It doesn't remove all the tariffs, it doesn't impose any major penalties on intellectual property theft, and it punts completely on issues including China's state subsidies to prop up its own companies in international markets. Yet on one matter, the agreement could dramatically alter the U.S.-China ...

We the people of the United States of America are deeply invested in the impeachment trial now underway in the U.S. Senate, prompted by two articles of impeachment brought by the House of Representatives. But the House, we should remember, omitted several other potential grounds for impeachment, including racism, sexism and what the Dalai Lama aptly called the president's "lack of moral ...

The message from Buckingham Palace to Queen Elizabeth's grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, was clear: You're in or you're out. There is no part-time work for royals. Harry and Meghan chose out. That's kind of sad. And surprising. What - they couldn't all work this out? I get it that, barely two years into a marriage that was supposed to signal a breathtaking infusion of ...

In 1974 President Richard Nixon declared, "At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need." So when President Donald Trump recently said, "We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil," did he finally accomplish what his eight predecessors vowed to do? Not exactly. We're much less dependent on Middle ...

When the anti-Trump Republicans of the Lincoln Project crafted their first digital ad, they didn't go after college-educated East Coast urbanites or suburban soccer moms. Instead, they targeted some of the most passionate and some say, inexplicable of the president's supporters: Evangelical Christians. Since Trump first burst on the political scene, he's enjoyed strong support from white ...

As a nation, we have a duty to end the lasting legacy of discrimination in housing and mortgage finance that lies at the core of the staggering and enduring wealth gap between whites and Americans of color. The Community Reinvestment Act, a historic civil rights law enacted in 1977 to stop banks from discriminatory lending practices, is one of our nation's most important tools for fighting ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News