Florida man executed for 1996 killing of woman he met in an Escambia bar

Michael Duane Zack is the sixth Florida inmate executed this year.
A booking photo provided by the Florida Department of Corrections shows Michael Duane Zack.
A booking photo provided by the Florida Department of Corrections shows Michael Duane Zack. [ UNCREDITED | AP ]
Published Oct. 3|Updated Oct. 4

RAIFORD — More than 27 years after he sexually assaulted and murdered a woman he met at an Escambia County bar, Michael Duane Zack was put to death by lethal injection Tuesday evening at Florida State Prison.

Zack, 54, was pronounced dead at 6:14 p.m. and became the sixth Florida inmate executed this year.

“I love you all,” Zack said when asked by a prison official if he wanted to make a last statement.

Strapped to a gurney before the execution, Zack briefly lifted his head about 6 p.m. and looked toward a room where 20 witnesses, reporters and Department of Corrections officials watched from behind a window. He also appeared to blink rapidly.

About two minutes into the lethal injection process, his chest could be seen heaving. A medical official used a stethoscope to check Zack at 6:13 p.m. before he was pronounced dead.

Zack did not request a last meal and was visited Tuesday by his wife and a spiritual adviser, Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson Kayla McLaughlin said.

The execution came after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to issue a stay. Zack’s attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Florida Supreme Court and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to halt the execution.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Aug. 17 signed a death warrant for Zack in the murder of Ravonne Smith during a crime spree that also included killing another woman. State and federal courts turned down a series of appeals over two decades.

Court documents said Zack met Smith, an employee of Dirty Joe’s bar, on June 13, 1996. They wound up going to Smith’s house, where evidence indicated Zack hit her in the head with a beer bottle and then sexually assaulted her.

Zack then was accused of pursuing Smith into a bedroom, where he beat her head against a floor before stabbing her in the chest, according to the documents. He stole a television, a videocassette recorder and Smith’s purse and was arrested days later after trying to pawn the television and VCR in Panama City.

A jury in September 1997 convicted Zack of first-degree murder, robbery with a firearm and sexual battery, records show. He also was sentenced to life in prison for killing Laura Rosillo in Okaloosa County shortly before the Smith murder.

Family members of Smith attended the execution, while McLaughlin said she did not know if family members of Rosillo were present.

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In trying to prevent the execution, Zack’s attorneys primarily focused on a diagnosis that he suffered fetal alcohol syndrome, which they said caused him to function as being “intellectually disabled.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2002 case known as Atkins v. Virginia that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In a filing at the U.S. Supreme Court, Zack’s attorneys wrote that “the medical community now recognizes that the unique, cognitive, practical and social impairments inherent to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (are) indistinguishable from those of Intellectual Developmental Disability.”

But Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office disputed the fetal alcohol syndrome argument.

“There is no real possibility of this (U.S. Supreme) Court expanding Atkins to include a diagnosis” of fetal alcohol syndrome, the state lawyers wrote in a court filing.

DeSantis signed Zack’s death warrant two weeks after the state executed James Phillip Barnes, 61, in the 1988 murder of a woman in her Melbourne condominium.

That came after the June execution of Duane Owen for the 1984 murder of a Palm Beach County woman. Also, the state executed Darryl Barwick in May in the 1986 murder of a woman in her Panama City apartment; Louis Gaskin in April in the 1989 murders of a couple in Flagler County; and Donald David Dillbeck in February in the 1990 murder of a woman during a carjacking in a Tallahassee mall parking lot.

Dillbeck was the first person executed since Gary Ray Bowles was put to death by lethal injection in August 2019 for a 1994 murder in Jacksonville.

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops last month asked DeSantis to stay Zack’s execution and commute his sentence to life without parole.

“His heinous and horrific crimes against these women have caused untold suffering to their families, friends, and communities,” Michael Sheedy, the conference’s executive director, wrote to DeSantis. “Yet, in taking the life of Mr. Zack, the state will do nothing to restore the victims’ lives. Rather, state-sanctioned killing will only further fuel the growing societal disrespect for the dignity of human life. The death penalty merely perpetuates the cycles of violence and vengeance that permeate our culture.”

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida