Opinion: As DeSantis edges closer to presidential run, executions ramp up

It isn't unheard of for politicians to ramp up death warrants ahead of campaigns, attorney Melanie Kalmanson writes.

The state of Florida's execution chamber.

The state of Florida's execution chamber. Florida Department of Corrections

As Florida prepares to complete another execution next month, Gov. Ron DeSantis edges closer to declaring his bid for the White House in 2024. 

On May 9, the Governor signed a death warrant scheduling the execution of Duane Owen for June 15, 2023. Owen’s execution, if it proceeds as scheduled, will be the fourth since February. 

The state executed Donald Dillbeck on Feb. 23, Louis Gaskin on April 12, and Darryl Barwick on May 3. The crimes underlying each of the four men’s sentences of death, including Owen’s, occurred decades ago, in the 1980s. In other words, all four men spent decades on death row before the governor signed the death warrant scheduling their executions. 

At a press conference just days before he issued the warrant setting Owen’s execution, DeSantis promised to continue executions “at a normal pace.” He also explained that he purposefully paused executions going into the 2022 election so they would not be viewed as a political tool connected to his reelection campaign. 

But the recent spate of executions could well be politically motivated. 

The first two executions were scheduled and carried out in an apparent attempt to support Florida’s new legislation (SB 450), pending at the time, that reduced the necessary jury vote to recommend a sentence of death from unanimous (that is, 12-0) to 8-4–the same vote by which the juries recommended that Dillbeck and Gaskin be sentenced to death. 

That legislation went into effect with DeSantis’ signature on April 20. Litigation over how this law applies to those facing sentences of death in this state and its constitutionality has already begun.

The continuation of executions seems related to DeSantis’ anticipated 2024 presidential bid. As Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project noted, it is not unheard of for politicians to ramp up executions ahead of campaigns to appear “tough on crime” – one of the governor’s aims.

As Florida continues to mark itself as an outlier in capital punishment by completing executions, the execution itself should not be viewed in isolation. As I have explained before, each execution places an enormous burden on everyone involved, from the condemned, to the victims, the state government, and taxpayers. 

For some victims, the execution means more trauma. As the surviving victim of Gaskin’s crimes wrote ahead of his execution in April: “So here I am, 33 years later being asked by the governor’s office if I want to witness the execution (really?). And by reporters how I feel about the death warrant being signed. Consequently, I have had to reflect, relive, remember all that has happened since that night. (The governor) signing this death warrant is not doing me any favor, it has only stirred up painful memories and has victimized me again.” 

For the attorneys and courts, it means 30 days of “arduous” litigation, as the Supreme Court of Florida described it in its decision denying Barwick’s final claims just days before his execution earlier this month. 

For prison staff, the process of facilitating and conducting the executions is traumatizing. Ron McAndrew, the former warden of Florida State Prison, recounts being visited by the ghosts of the men whose executions he oversaw. 

For taxpayers, a sentence of death costs exponentially more than a sentence of life in prison without parole. A 2010 Florida Bar News article estimated that “each execution costs taxpayers $24 million.” The same article cited the Florida Public Defender Association that “Florida spends $51 million a year to impose and implement the death penalty, rather than sending convicted first-degree murderers to prison for life without parole.”

It is an enormous cost, financially and otherwise, for the state in order to support a presidential campaign.

Melanie Kalmanson, a member of The Florida Bar since 2016, clerked for Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente in 2016-19. She currently serves on the steering committee for the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project and writes the blog, “Tracking Florida’s Death Penalty.” Views expressed are those of the author and not of the City & State Florida editorial staff.

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