Florida executes Donald Dillbeck for 1990 Tallahassee murder

Dillbeck died by lethal injection at 6:13 p.m. at Florida State Prison. It is the state’s first execution in 3 ½ years and the 100th since 1979.
Donald David Dillbeck
Donald David Dillbeck [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Feb. 23|Updated Feb. 24

STARKE — Florida executed Donald David Dillbeck on Thursday evening, three decades after he stabbed to death Faye Vann outside the Tallahassee Mall.

He was the first person Florida has executed in 3½ years and the 100th the state has put to death since 1979.

A brown curtain rose at 6 p.m. inside the execution chamber at Florida State Prison, near Starke. Dillbeck lay on a gurney, leather straps secured to his arms, a white sheet covering his body up to his chest. He lifted his head a couple of times to look through a window at witnesses.

He used his last words to disparage the governor who signed his death warrant:

“I know I hurt people when I was young,” he said. “I really messed up. But I know Ron DeSantis has done a lot worse. He’s taken a lot from a lot of people. I speak for all the men, women and children; he’s put his foot on our necks.”

He ended his statement with obscene words aimed at DeSantis.

With that, a lethal chemical cocktail began to flow into Dillbeck’s veins. He closed his eyes, opened them, then closed them again. He swallowed hard. He breathed heavily. He began to puff his cheeks and appeared to cough, then snore.

After four minutes, the execution team leader touched Dillbeck’s left cheek, shook his upper body and shouted his name. No response.

Dillbeck’s shoulders shook a few times before he slowly went still.

Related: How Florida kills: The state’s execution method, explained

His death took 11 minutes. He was 59.

The execution happened as Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers voiced renewed interest in capital punishment — and in making it easier for juries and judges to impose the harshest penalty available under Florida law.

DeSantis signed Dillbeck’s death warrant Jan. 23. The same day, the governor suggested in a speech to the Florida Sheriff’s Association that a jury vote of 8-4 should be the minimum threshold to recommend the death penalty. Legislation pending in the Florida House and Senate would make an 8-4 verdict the minimum, and judges would be allowed to override juries that chose life in prison.

Related: DeSantis pushes new Florida death penalty standards as execution looms

Dillbeck was sent to death row in 1991 after a jury voted 8-4 to recommend the death penalty for Vann’s murder.

Twenty-seven witnesses saw his execution, including some of Vann’s family members. They did not speak afterward, but Tony and Laura Vann issued a written statement through the Department of Corrections.

“11,932 days ago, Donald Dillbeck brutally killed our Mother,” it read. “We were robbed of years of memories with her and it has been very painful ever since. However the execution has given us some closure. We are grateful to Governor DeSantos for carrying out the sentence.”

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Dillbeck had a last meal Thursday morning of fried shrimp, mushrooms, onion rings, butter pecan ice cream, pecan pie and a chocolate bar, the Department of Corrections reported. He met with a spiritual adviser.

He entered prison in 1979. That year, in his native Indiana, he stabbed a man who caught him trying to steal a radio from a Chevrolet Blazer. Aware that police were looking for him, Dillbeck stole a car and drove to Florida.

He ended up in a park in Fort Myers Beach. It was there, on April 11, 1979, that Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall found him sitting in the stolen vehicle.

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

Hall tried to search him. Dillbeck tried to run. A scuffle ensued. Dillbeck managed to get hold of the deputy’s gun and shot him three times.

He was sentenced to life in prison. He was 15.

A decade later, Dillbeck was assigned to a work detail in which he was to help cater an event in Quincy, a small town northwest of Tallahassee. He walked away. Two days later, he was in Tallahassee. He bought a paring knife at Publix.

In his trial, he testified that he’d forgotten how to drive while in prison. He said he intended to steal a car at the Tallahassee Mall by kidnapping the driver and making the person take him to Orlando, where he knew a former prisoner.

He found Vann sitting in her car outside a Gayfers department store. She was waiting for her children, who were inside shopping. When Dillbeck got in, she refused to drive, pulled his hair, bit his hand and pressed the car’s horn.

Dillbeck stabbed her more than 20 times in her throat and abdomen.

The car crashed. Dillbeck fled. Security officers chased him, and police arrested him shortly thereafter.

“I’m really sorry of what happened,” he told a judge before he was sentenced. “I’m asking for a life sentence. Not for my sake, but for my parents’ sake. I feel like they’re going to be a victim, too.”

His defense lawyer called the death penalty an “abomination.”

“The only abomination in the courtroom today is Donald Dillbeck,” said prosecutor Tom Kirwin.

New appeals were filed as Dillbeck’s execution approached. Arguments included evidence that he showed signs of fetal alcohol disorder — a condition marked by diminished intelligence, impulsivity, poor decision-making and low school performance.

His birth mother was described in court as a violent and mentally ill alcoholic who drank heavily during her pregnancy with him. Placed in foster care at age 4 and later adopted, Dillbeck struggled in school and began using drugs as a teenager.

Death penalty opponents staged demonstrations across the state. On Wednesday, the group Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty delivered a letter to DeSantis’ office. It was signed by more than 70 Christian and Jewish leaders, including several from Tampa and St. Petersburg.

“Executing Donald won’t make our state any safer,” the letter stated. “Instead, it says the State of Florida doesn’t care about protecting vulnerable children and it flatly rejects the notion that redemption is always possible.”