This week, Florida plans to conduct its 100th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The state’s last execution was in August 2019.
In late January, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a death warrant scheduling the execution of Donald Dillbeck for 6 p.m. Thursday. The governor issuing Dillbeck’s warrant is consistent with his recent push to streamline the imposition of death sentences in Florida.
Dillbeck was sentenced to death for a murder that occurred almost 33 years ago, on June 24, 1990. While serving a life sentence for killing Lee County sheriff's deputy Lynn Hall with the deputy’s gun in 1979, Dillbeck walked away from a work assignment in Gadsden County. He walked to Tallahassee, where he tried to hijack a car and its driver, Faye Vann, from a shopping mall parking lot. When that was unsuccessful, Dillbeck killed Vann.
After convicting Dillbeck for Vann’s death, the jury recommended a sentence of death by a vote of 8-4. The trial court sentenced Dillbeck to death on March 15, 1991. His sentence became final on March 20, 1995 – almost 28 years ago.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida (2016) that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme (the one under which Dillbeck was sentenced to death) violated death-sentence defendants’ right to jury trial under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Supreme Court denied Dillbeck relief. The reason: His sentence had been final for too long.
The length of time Dillbeck has spent on death row is not unusual. As of 2019, the national average an inmate spends on death row before execution was 22 years. That was the longest national average since 1976.
So what happens when the governor issues a death warrant?
Preparations start as soon as warrant is issued
First, the warden reads the death warrant to the condemned inmate, who is then moved to a different part of the prison called “death watch.” Death watch and the execution chamber are located at Florida State Prison (FSP) in Raiford, Florida, a rural town in Union County between Jacksonville and Gainesville.
Michael Lambrix, who the state executed in 2019, wrote before his death that the first thing the inmate sees upon entering death watch is a board on the wall with the inmate’s name, cell number and execution date. The death watch area has but a few cells, which are a bit larger than the standard death row cells. When more than one inmate is on death row, they are shuffled between cells as they approach execution. Cell 1 houses the inmate with the most imminent execution. After an execution is completed, inmates are moved forward.
Despite a Florida law directing the governor to provide longer warrant periods (that is, the time between the death warrant being issued and the scheduled date of execution), they are generally 30 days. Within that time, dozens of people must prepare for the execution.
On the legal side, defense attorneys race to raise and fully exhaust the inmate’s final claims, including claims related to the warrant or the execution, which cannot be raised until the warrant is issued. Attorneys for the state also are under strict deadlines to respond to the inmate’s claims.
Similarly, the courts must review and render decisions on those claims. First, the trial court must review the inmate’s claims. That judge’s decision then is appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Florida. After the Supreme Court, the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is almost always the final arbiter on the inmate’s final requests for relief. Because of the short warrant period, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision often is issued just minutes before the execution begins.
For Dillbeck, the story is no different. Here’s how the litigation of Dillbeck’s final claims has unfolded:
- Jan. 23: As soon as the governor signed the warrant, Dillbeck, through his lawyers, raised several claims challenging Dillbeck’s sentence and seeking relief from the execution, which initiated a flurry of filings in the trial court.
- Feb. 2: Although the trial court had initially scheduled an evidentiary hearing for Feb. 3, the trial court determined the evidentiary hearing was unnecessary, canceled it and summarily denied Dillbeck’s claims.
- Feb. 6: Dillbeck, through his attorneys, appealed to the Supreme Court of Florida.
- Feb. 10: His attorneys filed his initial brief on the appeal from the trial court as well as a request for oral argument and a motion for stay of execution. That same day, Dillbeck’s attorneys also filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of Florida, on which he requested oral argument, and a second motion for stay of execution.
- Feb. 13: The state filed its answer brief on Dillbeck’s appeal, its response to Dillbeck’s petition for writ of habeas corpus, its responses to Dillbeck’s requests for oral argument, and its responses to Dillbeck’s motions for stay of execution.
- Feb. 14: Dillbeck, through his attorneys, filed his reply brief on the appeal and his reply in the habeas case.
- Feb. 16: Just one week before the scheduled execution, the Court denied all of Dillbeck’s pending claims and motions.
- Feb. 20: Dillbeck, through his attorneys, filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court raising two issues, including whether Dillbeck’s sentence is unconstitutional because he was not sentenced to death by a unanimous jury. Dillbeck also filed an application for stay of execution.
On the inside, inmate and prison staff must also prepare
Within five days of the governor issuing the warrant, the inmate must designate in writing “[t]he name of the [inmate’s] requested minister of religion” to attend the execution. The warden must identify the execution team according to the Department of Corrections Lethal Injection Protocol, which directs that “[t]he identities of any team members with medical qualifications [are] strictly confidential.” Each team member is provided a copy of the protocol.
A week before the scheduled execution, preparations pick up in what is called “Phase II.”
During Phase II, the execution team must simulate the execution. Per the protocol, “[a]ll persons involved with the execution should participate.” This rehearsal requirement is not new. Ron McAndrew, a former warden at FSP who oversaw three executions when Florida used electrocution as its primary method of execution, says that the team rehearsed the execution process before each scheduled execution while he was there. (McAndrew says he now believes that “premeditated ceremonial political killing” is a more accurate term for the process than “execution.”)
Also during Phase II, an officer monitors the inmate 24 hours a day to ensure the inmate does not attempt suicide or any other self-harm. The officer monitoring the inmate takes notes about the inmate’s activities. It is unclear how detailed the notes must be, as the protocol does not include this detail and the notes are not made public.
In his final days, Lambrix wrote that the purpose of this procedure is “to make sure that the condemned prisoner doesn’t deprive the state out of its intended execution by committing suicide.” As Professor Craig Trocino of University of Miami Law recently said, the state will go through “herculean efforts to save a death row prisoner’s life” by paying for and providing life-saving treatments like chemotherapy, cancer treatment and more “just so they can execute them.”
The inmate faces the reality of the imminent execution during Phase II. The inmate must pack up his or her belongings, which are taken before the execution and distributed according to the inmate’s direction. Other preparations include fittings for the clothing worn during the execution and “a physical examination . . . to determine whether [the inmate has] any medical issues that could potentially interfere” with the execution.
Day-of preparations involve both execution team and inmate
On the day of the execution, each member of the team must submit to a drug and alcohol test. The team must also confirm that certain equipment is working, including the telephone in the death chamber, which is used throughout the execution “to report the ongoing activities of the execution team and other personnel to the Office of the Governor.” One team member must “prepare the lethal injection chemicals” and “transport them … to the executioner’s room.”
The inmate also has a strict schedule that day. The inmate is required to shower, supervised by prison personnel, and receives the clothing to be worn for the execution. It’s not clear whether the execution clothing is different from the normal death row garb. The inmate is allowed a last meal of choice – as long as it costs less than $40, any drinks are non-alcoholic, and the ingredients are available at the prison. The inmate is also allowed a two-hour non-contact visit and then an additional one-hour contact visit, which is the inmate’s last visit.
Later, the inmate is visited by his previously designated religious adviser. The warden also visits and, according to the protocol, “explain(s) the lethal injection preparation procedure to the inmate” and offers anxiety medication to the inmate, which is given upon request.
As with every day on death watch, the inmate waits minute-by-minute to receive a call with news that a court has stayed the execution. If the defendant’s final claims are denied, the inmate proceeds to the death chamber approximately 30 minutes before the execution.
During the execution, the entire institution is on lockdown, a reminder to everyone – including the other inmates on death row – that an execution is in progress.
Melanie Kalmanson, a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, has been a member of The Florida Bar since 2016. She clerked for Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente in 2016-19 and serves on the steering committee for the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project.