Florida on Thursday executed 59-year-old Donald Dillbeck, who was sentenced to death 32 years ago by a non-unanimous jury under a death penalty statute that has since been found unconstitutional.
Dillbeck, who was killed as punishment for fatally stabbing a woman named Faye Vann, was the first person executed in Florida since 2019.
The timing of his execution appears to be part of a push by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to bring back death sentences by non-unanimous juries. DeSantis, who is expected to run for president, signed Dillbeck’s death warrant last month on the same day that he floated changing state law to allow non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences. “Maybe eight out of 12 have to agree or something,” DeSantis suggested at a Florida Sheriffs Association conference, just before ordering the execution of a man with that exact jury split.
“I know I hurt people when I was young. I really messed up,” Dillbeck said just before his death. “But I know Ron DeSantis has done a lot worse. He’s taken a lot from a lot of people. I speak for all men, women and children. He’s put his foot on our necks. Ron DeSantis and other people like him can s—k our d—s.”
Shortly after DeSantis’ suggestion, Republican lawmakers filed a set of bills that would replace the unanimous jury requirement with an 8-4 threshold and allow a judge to overrule a jury to impose a death sentence.
“I’m not minimizing what [Dillbeck] did to people,” Florida capital defender Allison Miller told the Tallahassee Democrat, “but he is most definitely a political pawn.”
DeSantis has cited the outcome of the trial for Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people in a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as a reason to bring back non-unanimous jury verdicts. Cruz was sentenced to life in prison without parole after jurors split 9-3 over the death penalty. Not all of the victims of the Parkland shooting wanted Cruz to be sentenced to death.
There is currently no state in the country where a jury can legally impose a death sentence with an 8-4 vote, according to Robert Dunham, the former executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama is the only state that currently allows non-unanimous juries to sentence people to death — and it requires 10 votes in favor of death. Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to impose the death penalty in cases where the jury is divided.
Like most people sentenced to death, Dillbeck endured extreme abuse as a child. His birth mother drank 18-24 beers per day throughout her pregnancy, resulting in “a catastrophic effect on Mr. Dillbeck’s intellectual and adaptive functioning,” his lawyers wrote in a petition requesting that the Supreme Court review his case. “That Mr. Dillbeck suffers from Neurobehavioral Disorder associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE) is thoroughly medically documented, unrebutted, and factually beyond dispute,” the lawyers continued.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In his petition, Dillbeck’s lawyer argued that ND-PAE is “functionally similar” and “identical in both etiology and symptomatology” to intellectual disabilities and should exclude him from execution.
Dillbeck was put in foster care when he was 4 years old and began using drugs by the age of 13, the Tampa Bay Times reported. When he was 15, he was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting Lee County sheriff’s deputy Dwight Lynn Hall after the officer caught the boy with a stolen car. The teen was repeatedly sexually assaulted in prison. In 1990, he escaped from an off-site vocational program, purchased a knife, and encountered Vann in her car in a parking lot. When she refused to drive him away, he fatally stabbed her.
In 1991, Dillbeck was sentenced to death by a jury with eight people voting in favor of death and four against. At the time, jurors could recommend a death sentence with a simple majority.
“As the clerk read the sentence aloud, one juror wept uncontrollably,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported, referencing the newspaper’s archives. “Readers wrote to the newspaper disturbed by how such an arbitrary split could still send someone to death row, or by how Dillbeck’s history of childhood trauma seemed to have granted him some, but not enough, mercy.”
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of Florida’s death penalty system, ruling that it did not give jurors enough of a role in determining the fate of the defendant. Later that year, the state legislature amended the statute to require at least 10 jurors recommend a death sentence in order for a judge to impose the punishment. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently held that it is unconstitutional for judges to impose death sentences with a non-unanimous jury recommendation. In March 2017, state lawmakers amended its death penalty law again to require unanimous jury decisions.
But in 2020, the Florida Supreme Court made a stunning reversal. By then, three of the liberal and moderate justices had reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. The court majority reinstated the non-unanimous death sentence of a man named Mark Poole, finding, “Our court was wrong” in 2016. The 2020 decision found that only jury decisions about whether an individual is eligible for the death penalty need to be unanimous — not the actual decision to impose the sentence.
“The majority returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty,” Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a dissent. “Further, the majority removes an important safeguard for ensuring that the death penalty is only applied to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders. In the strongest possible terms, I dissent.”
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