DeSantis pushes new Florida death penalty standards as execution looms

As the state readies for its first execution in three years, lawmakers and Gov. DeSantis aim to roll back laws regulating death sentences.
The execution chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke.
The execution chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke. [ PALM BEACH POST | Palm Beach Post ]
Published Feb. 21|Updated Feb. 23

When the jurors came back with a verdict, reporters noticed three had tears in their eyes. One, as reported in the Tallahassee Democrat, would return to court a few days later and express sympathy to Donald David Dillbeck’s adoptive parents before a judge sentenced him to die.

The jury’s vote — eight in favor of the death penalty, four for life in prison — spurred pleas in the newspaper’s editorials and from readers urging that death penalty juries be unanimous.

That was 32 years ago. Unanimity is now the law. But the debate is as contested as ever.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and at least some lawmakers want to go back to the way it used to be. They point to the life sentence given to the Florida school shooter in the Parkland case. The jury fell three votes short of a death recommendation.

“Maybe eight out of 12 have to agree or something,” the governor told the Florida Sheriff’s Association in a speech last month. “But we can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this.”

Donald David Dillbeck
Donald David Dillbeck [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

The same day he said that, DeSantis signed a death warrant setting Dillbeck’s execution for Thursday. Lawmakers thereafter introduced bills in the Florida House and Senate that would make an 8-4 vote the rule in death penalty cases and allow judges to override a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence.

DeSantis has ordered only two previous executions, far fewer than his predecessors. It’s been three years since Florida’s last execution.

DeSantis, widely viewed as a 2024 presidential candidate, is seen by some observers as shoring up a tough-on-crime image ahead of what could be a primary campaign against former President Donald Trump.

Until Trump’s final year in office, there had been no federal executions in 17 years. In 2020 and 2021, however, his administration carried out 13. Since then, Trump has proposed death sentences for drug dealers.

DeSantis, in turn, recently suggested expanding the death penalty to include certain sex crimes. A pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases in 1977 and 2008 barred the death penalty in rape cases. But DeSantis has said that he thinks the current high court might rule differently.

“I think he signed (a death warrant) now because he’s gearing up for an election and he knows the people who would vote for him would be pro-death penalty,” said Stephen Harper, an emeritus professor of law at Florida International University. “The death penalty is a political issue, as opposed to a moral issue.”

Parkland is another factor. Outrage was swift when a Broward County jury in October didn’t approve a death sentence for Nikolas Cruz, who massacred 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

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Justin Sayfie, a Republican lobbyist and former adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush, said the death penalty is part of a public safety package that DeSantis is proposing to appeal to voters concerned about crime. The results of the Parkland trial could generate public support for the proposal.

”It’s a fair question; if the death penalty isn’t administered in that situation, well then why do we have the death penalty?” Sayfie said. “And I think a lot of Floridians not just in Broward County but around the state would say the same thing.”

Death and unanimity

Florida was one of the first to bring back capital punishment after the U.S. Supreme Court briefly got rid of it in the 1970s.

Lawmakers back then crafted a death penalty law that required only a bare majority of a jury to recommend a death sentence — seven votes out of 12. Later decades saw legal decisions that led to calls for Florida to require juries to be unanimous, but the state held to its majority requirement, making it an outlier among death penalty states.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty law. Thereafter, state law changed to make unanimous juries the rule.

Many whose sentences were finalized long ago remained on death row. But prosecutors were forced to revisit some cases that had nonunanimous juries.

Of the 389 people who in 2016 were on Florida’s death row, 87 were resentenced to life in prison or a term of years, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. Another 20 died on death row from natural causes. Seven in the last seven years were executed.

Two had their convictions overturned and are awaiting new trials. Two others were exonerated and released. That leaves 271 on death row. But the state has continued sentencing people to death. Since 2016, 30 people have been added.

Some legal observers think that reverting to non-unanimous juries will invite legal challenges that ultimately would overturn the state’s death penalty again, forcing the state to re-try more cases, and undoing more death sentences.

“The next-of-kin of murder victims, of course, deserve closure,” said Allison Miller, a Pinellas County attorney who has handled death penalty appeals. “Why would we do this thing that’s likely to invite error and make these people have to relive this over and over again?”

State Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, who is sponsoring the House bill that would make the threshold 8-4, said he believes the legislation would ensure that victims’ lives are not “cheapened by a system that allows protest jurors or holdouts, for whatever reason, to derail the administration of justice.”

The change would make Florida one of two states to not require unanimity. The other, Alabama, has a higher threshold of 10-2.

Even with unanimity, Florida leads the nation in the number of people it condemns, with four new death sentences in 2022, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that studies capital punishment. Meanwhile, death sentences nationwide have declined, from a high of 315 in 1996, to 20 last year.

“The popularity of the death penalty is as low as it’s ever been,” said Harper, the Florida International University law professor. “So the death penalty itself is in a slow decline. And eventually, it’s going to disappear.”

Florida’s 100th execution

Why have there been no executions in three years?

The last time DeSantis signed a death warrant, it was for James Dailey. But Dailey’s case generated controversy, with questions over whether he might be innocent of the 1985 Pinellas County murder for which he was convicted. A federal judge granted Dailey a temporary stay of execution, which later expired. But no new death warrant was signed.

State emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes, can delay executions, said Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, in an email to the Times. He noted that carrying out an execution is complicated and involves many people.

Indeed, once a death warrant is signed, it triggers a round of appeals. Courts must make time to consider them. Prisons must prepare. And top state officials must be available by phone during the execution.

“With the signing of Mr. Dillbeck’s warrant, the process has resumed,” Griffin wrote.

Dillbeck, 59, was sentenced to die for the stabbing of Faye Vann in Tallahassee in 1990.

Court records tell of a childhood marked by abuse. His mother was described as a violent and mentally ill alcoholic who physically and sexually abused him and his older sister.

She was said to have drank as many as 18 to 24 cans of beer each day when she was pregnant with Dillbeck, a point that years later would factor into a diagnosis of fetal alcohol disorder. The condition can manifest in diminished intelligence, impulsivity, poor decision-making and low school performance.

Placed in foster care when he was 4 years old, Dillbeck was described as a slow learner who did poorly in school. He started using drugs when he was 13. At his trial, medical experts opined that he showed signs of a mental disorder akin to schizophrenia, marked by paranoia, hallucinations and impaired reasoning and judgment.

In 1979, in Indiana, he stabbed a man who caught him breaking into a Chevrolet Blazer. He then stole a car and drove to Florida. On April 11 that year, Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall found Dillbeck in the car in Fort Myers Beach. When Hall tried to search him, a struggle ensued. Dillbeck got hold of the deputy’s gun and shot him three times, killing him.

Donald Dillbeck, right, as he appeared as a teenager in 1979, when he was arrested for the fatal shooting of Lee County Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall, left.
Donald Dillbeck, right, as he appeared as a teenager in 1979, when he was arrested for the fatal shooting of Lee County Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall, left. [ Associated Press ]

At age 15, he was sentenced to life in prison. As a teenager, he endured sexual assaults from older prisoners. To get it to stop, he entered an arrangement with an older prisoner wherein he would give sexual favors in return for protection, according to court records.

Donald David Dillbeck appears in an undated Florida prison mugshot.
Donald David Dillbeck appears in an undated Florida prison mugshot. [ Associated Press ]

In 1990, Dillbeck was assigned to a work detail in which he was to help cater an event in Quincy, a town of about 8,000 that’s 25 miles northwest of Tallahassee. He walked away. Two days later, he bought a paring knife at Publix, intending to steal a car at knifepoint to further his escape.

He found Vann in the parking lot of the Tallahassee Mall. She was sitting in a car while her children were shopping. When he got in her car, Vann refused to drive and began to fight with Dillbeck. He stabbed her more than 20 times.

Mall security guards chased Dillbeck before police arrested him.

With a jury vote of 8-4, he arrived on death row in 1991.

He has survived through six governors and six presidents. Currently, 70 men have been on death row longer than Dillbeck, according to a Times analysis of the death row roster.

Tommy Zeigler, the longest-tenured death row prisoner, who some believe is innocent, has been there since 1976.

Since Dillbeck arrived, 74 inmates have been executed. Those executed within the last decade spent an average of 24 years on death row.

Barring a last-minute stay, Dillbeck on Thursday will become the 100th Florida prisoner to be executed since the state resumed capital punishment in the 1970s.

That evening, he will be moved from a death watch cell to a little white room. He will be placed on a gurney, with leather straps secured against his arms, legs and chest. Intravenous lines will be placed in his arms before a systematic injection of three drugs — etomidate, rocuronium bromide and potassium acetate — will sedate him, paralyze him and stop his heart.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.