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A veteran condemned to death: the story of James Daily

From Vatican Media, one of the stories from "death row" by Dale Recinella, the former Wall Street finance lawyer who, with his wife Susan, assists prisoners in Florida.

An innocent veteran under a Florida death sentence


By Dale S. Recinella

On June 12, 2019, my wife Susan and I board our plane in Rome, Italy to take us home to the USA. We will be changing planes at JFK in New York City. We turn off our cell phones and settle into a nine-hour discussion of all the wonders and encouragements we have experienced during three weeks in Rome, Italy.

As our plane lands and taxis the crisscrossing concrete of JFK, my cellphone, which has been silent for three weeks, suddenly erupts in ringing, in tones, and in buzzing. People are urgently trying to reach me. Clearly, an emergency is in process.

A quick glance at my phone display after the jet has come to rest in its gate causes my heart to stick in my throat. The Warden of Florida State Prison, Florida’s execution prison, is trying to reach me.

“Either someone has died, or someone is going to be killed,” I whisper to Susan. “I’ll take this call as soon as we are off the plane.”
 

Once inside the Terminal, Susan scans the gate boards for our connection to Jacksonville, Florida while I dial the Warden.

“Yes, Brother Dale,” his assistant recognizes my voice without any self-introduction. “He is in a meeting but asked me to put you through when you called back. Hang on.”

After a few more clicks and metallic chirps, both the Warden and the prison chaplain are on the line from Raiford, Florida.

“Brother Dale,” the Warden opens the call, “we hope you had a good trip, but it’s time to get back to work.

“One of your spiritual advisees has had his death warrant signed by the Governor. He has asked for you as his deathwatch spiritual advisor and his execution witness. Will you do it? Yes or no?”

“Yes. When do you need me to report to the death house?”

I know without asking that the death row inmate whose death warrant has been signed by the Governor has already been moved to a death watch cell in the downstairs level of Q Wing at FSP. That is always done before the prison administration contacts the spiritual advisor.

This downstairs level of Q Wing, the cells, the execution witness room, and the execution chamber are called the death house.

“Report to the death house tomorrow morning. Can you be here by 9am?”

“Yes, sir. Our flight from JFK gets into Jacksonville late tonight. So, we have already booked a room for tonight at my 'Jacksonville residence.' We are planning to drive home to Tallahassee tomorrow afternoon.”
 

When Susan and I committed to the Church to handle this pastoral work at death row long-term in 1998, we purchased a home in Macclenny, Florida: an antebellum town three miles south of the Georgia border, 15 miles from Florida death row, and smack dab in the middle between Jacksonville and Lake City.

In 2011, Susan accepts a new position at the counseling center for Florida State University in Tallahassee. A great move for her career that should see her through retirement. A great move for me, as well, because most of our adult children live in Tallahassee.

But when our house in Macclenny sells, a necessary step before buying a house in Tallahassee, where will I sleep and do my laundry for the long weeks on death row and in the death house?

We find a motel that can accommodate all my allergy needs and food issues. This motel becomes known to the priest and parishioners of St. Mary’s of Macclenny and, ultimately to the staff at the prisons, as Brother Dale’s Jacksonville residence.

The Assistant Warden breaks into the telephone discussion with some levity at my expense. “Is your Jacksonville residence the motel I drove you to last August when you faceplanted in the death house from the high heat and humidity?”

“Yes, sir. It’s the same motel that I always stay at when I’m in the prisons in the iron triangle.”

The Iron Triangle is a longstanding nickname for the cluster of maximum-security prisons sitting outside Raiford and Starke, Florida, halfway between Jacksonville and Gainesville. In the culture of Florida’s massive prison complexes, nicknames become more useful than proper nouns.

Florida State Prison or FSP is called the Big House because that’s where convicted people are sent for long stays in solitary confinement or to be killed by the State. It has almost 1400 solitary cells and holds the death house.

Union Correctional Institution or UCI is right next door on the other side of the county line. It holds Florida’s death row and another 1200 solitary cells.

These two massive prisons sit on U.S. Highway 16, surrounded by a half-dozen additional prisons. The area is known as the Iron Triangle.
 

There is no air-conditioning in solitary confinement or on death row or – until this year – in the death house. People always ask me, “How hot is it?”

I answer with humor, “As hot as I imagine hell to be, but with higher humidity!”

The more accurate answer is that the summer thermal index, which measures the combined effect of heat and humidity on the human body, inside these prisons can well hit 150 degrees Fahrenheit in August and early September.

Then, last year in August, I spent four hours at cell front in the death house with a condemned inmate. It was the height of the summer heat and humidity.

Despite my efforts to hydrate, I face-planted. Passed out cold, with my face hitting the fifty-years old concrete floor.

The Assistant Warden and chaplain took me in a wheelchair to the front of the prison, and called my wife in Tallahassee. He drove me in my car to my motel in Jacksonville. Susan immediately left her work in Tallahassee to drive to Jacksonville. She will follow me home to Tallahassee the next morning on Interstate 10. Over 200 miles each way.

I have heard that the State has now installed a window air-conditioner in the death house for deathwatch. That should keep me from passing out and embarrassing myself again.

On the morning of June 13, 2019, I report to the death house at FSP. The walk from the front door of the prison to the death house is over a quarter-mile.

In the course of my quarter-mile walk today, I pass several dozen officers. Almost everyone wishes me a good morning and then, tongue-in-cheek, thanks me for getting air-conditioning in the death house. The latter is not about gratitude.

They are letting me know that everyone has heard about my faceplant in the heat and humidity in the death house last year. That is the reason the state has installed a window air-conditioner in the death house. That is the very same heat and humidity that the officers work in and the inmates live in, day in and day out.

In a good-natured response to their feigned concern for my delicate constitution, I smile and laugh, “You are welcome. Sir.”

If one has thin skin, The Iron Triangle is not the place to look for a job.

By the end of August 2019, the man whose warrant was signed in June has been executed. No one is expecting another warrant anytime soon. And then it happens.

The Chaplain at FSP calls me at the chapel at UCI next door where I am handling appointments with inmates.

“Brother Dale, we just got us another death warrant. He’s one of your guys. He has already been moved to the death house.”

“Oh my, no one was expecting that so soon, Chaplain. Who is it?”

“It is James Dailey, and he has asked for you to be his death-watch spiritual advisor and execution witness. Will you do it?”

The condemned inmate’s name has left me in stunned silence. I stumble over my words trying to process the shock. “James Dailey, the Air Force Veteran of Korea and Vietnam?”

“Yeah, James Dailey,” the Chaplain is speaking softly and respectfully. “I know you just finished an execution, Brother Dale, and if you need a break, we can have him ask someone else.”

“No, sir. I have been seeing Jim in pastoral counseling for over 20 years. I can do it, and I will do it. When do I need to come over to see you?”

“How about this afternoon when you finish up at UCI.”

When I arrive to the FSP chapel later that day, the Chaplain and I go through the required paperwork and recitation of the strict rules governing death watch. Then he gives me the name and phone number for Jim’s ex-wife, Mary Kay.

I will call Mary Kay tonight from my motel room and drive home to Tallahassee in the morning. Susan and I will have the weekend to turn over my laundry and replenish supplies. I will drive back to my Jacksonville Residence on Sunday and start deathwatch with Jim and Mary Kay on Monday morning.

At 8 am on Monday morning, I present myself to the security station at the front gate of FSP. The security search of my clothes and possessions is extremely thorough. That is to be expected on deathwatch.

The officers have been trained to look for anything that could be turned into a weapon or a pill that could be used to facilitate suicide by the condemned. In the modern U.S. people have committed suicide before the state could execute them. Such an act is called cheating the State. When a condemned kills themself before the State can kill them, they have cheated the State out of a legal killing.

Once security has cleared me for entry, I am escorted to the non-contact visiting park. This is a long room with a wall down the middle. This dividing wall has a ledge running from one end to the other. The ledge forms a small shelf on each side of the wall where one can set food or drink items, or legal papers, or a Bible.

The wall is made of solid material from the ledge down to the floor. From the ledge to the ceiling, the wall consists of bullet-proof, reinforced Plexiglass®.

This room could hold sixty visitors. Today is a death watch visit. There will only be Jim and Mary Kay and me. And the officers on both sides of the wall, of course.

Mary Kay will arrive about 11:00am and will join Jim and me in this room. Meantime, Jim and I can get caught up a bit.

“So, when did this warrant hit? Were you expecting it?”

“Absolutely not,” Jim shakes his head. “I had no idea it was coming now.”

“Don’t you still have appeals to be heard?”

“Yeah! Major issues still waiting to be heard!” Jim shakes his head in disappointment at the U.S. justice system that he had been willing to defend with his life years ago. “From start to finish this trial has been a total fiasco!”

“I’m so sorry, Jim. You gave us so many years of service in the Air Force in Asia. I cannot believe this is how we treat our Vets!”

“Believe it!” he laughs, “This and worse.”

“We’ve been meeting pastorally for over 20 years, brother, but I didn’t expect this.”

“Me neither, Brother Dale, and I still have a ton of issues in the courts.”

“Well, I think we need to treat this as a spiritual battle and make full use of the weapons Jesus gave us.”

“Now you’re talking,” Jim’s index finger makes a check-off motion that I assume harkens back to his days as Air Force ground crew in Korea and Vietnam.

“But before we start, tell me real quick: would you rather be here at FSP now or back in 'Nam?”

“For sure 'Nam,” he laughs. “The food’s a toss-up, and there I could defend myself.”

“And here?”

“They are hell-bent on killing me, regardless of the facts and the truth.”

A loud metallic clang interrupts our discussion. Two officers are releasing the hall door to allow Mary Kay to join us. Many of the families I have met in this room on deathwatch try very hard to keep things light and optimistic to appear strong for their loved one who is scheduled to be killed.

Mary Kay enters with a smile, while focusing with razor-sharp intensity upon Jim through the glass. She places her hand on the glass partition. Jim responds with a feeling-laden smile as he places his hand on the glass opposite hers. For the briefest instant, their hands are immediately opposite each other on the glass. The intensity of the moment defies words.

Then Mary Kay drops her arms to her sides as her gaze slides to me. “Well, Brother Dale, it’s good to finally meet you. I’ve been hearing about you and your wife Susan for a very long time.”

“I’m so glad to finally meet the lady who has been present for Jim through this whole mess.”

Mary Kay responds without pause, “Harder for Jim than for me.”

“Don’t believe it, Brother Dale.” Jim shrugs off her compliment.  “She’s been an angel of hope and mercy for me.”

“Well, you’re both heroes in my book.” I pause for a moment of deep connection, with my right hand on the glass opposite Jim’s hand, my left hand on Mary Kay’s shoulder. “I don’t know if they told you Mary Kay, but spiritual advisors are not allowed any contact with the inmate’s family until the death warrant is signed.”

“Security!” All three of us simultaneously mouth the same word.

“What would we do without security?” Jim laughs.

“I’ll say this much, Jim. I know what you would do without security. You would do exactly the same thing you would do if 100 officers were present.”

“You do know my guy,” Mary Kay smiles. “He does the right thing whether he is alone or surrounded by security.”

“I know it’s true, Mary Kay. Jim’s discipline is from inside, not from outside.”

“So what am I doing here, on Florida death row for almost 30 years?”

Jim, what are you doing here indeed!

In the most recent Florida Supreme Court decision on this case in September of 2021, six of the seven justices used procedural gimmicks to avoid making any politically tough decisions or applying any scrutiny to the conduct of the State. They did not ask: How did the State put a Veteran of 12 years of military service in Asia on death row without any forensic evidence against him?

The crime was horrible. The victim, a fourteen-year-old girl named Shelly Boggio. Her nude body was found in Indian Rock Beach in Pinellas County, Florida. She had been stabbed over and over, strangled, and drowned.

Jim Daily rented a bedroom in the same house where the original suspect, Jack Pearcy lived. Pearcy was tried and convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Evidently, the State wanted a death sentence on somebody for this brutal murder of a young girl. Whether there was evidence or not. They sent detectives to the jail, left newspaper articles out in day rooms – articles that alleged that Jim was involved in the poor girl’s murder. Sure enough, several inmates from the jail came forward claiming that Jim had confessed his guilt to them. All of them sought favorable treatment in their own cases in exchange for their testimony against Jim.

In the times before Jesus Christ, there was a biblical death penalty from the Scriptures. Many southern Christians argue that fact to support the U.S. death penalty. But even over two millennia ago, that biblical death penalty prohibited testimony from being given in capital cases in exchange for deals or favors. Six of our seven Florida Supreme Court Justices ignored that wisdom. Only one was horrified.

In the September 2021 decision in Jim’s case, Justice Labarga filed a scathing dissent.

“In this case, there was no forensic evidence linking Dailey to Boggio’s murder, and a significant component of the State’s case was the testimony of three inmates who were housed in the same jail as Dailey while he awaited trial….and given the lack of forensic evidence, this testimony was likely essential to the jury’s finding of guilt…

“Dailey’s conviction and sentence of death exist under a cloud of unreliable inmate testimony…

“Ironically, Pearcy, who was convicted by a jury of the murder of Shelly Boggio and who thereafter confessed to the murder and stated that Dailey was not involved, received a life sentence, while Dailey, convicted in no small part due to the testimony of three inmates and without substantial independent evidence, is facing the death penalty.

“While finality in judicial proceedings is important to the function of the judicial branch, that interest can never overwhelm the imperative that the death penalty not be wrongly imposed.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, a masterpiece of theology and philosophy, tells us that the execution of an innocent man is intrinsically evil.

Jim, what are you doing on Florida Death Row indeed!

25 November 2021, 15:56