Florida Prepares for its Sixth Execution in 2023

September 13, 2023 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

Only several months after Florida’s death penalty requirements changed, another death row inmate is preparing for his looming execution. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made it clear that the state is becoming tougher on crime—however, the result could be more and more people being executed in the Sunshine State. This will be the sixth execution to occur in Florida this year.

This page will provide information on the recent law changes in Florida surrounding the death penalty, the executions that have taken place this year so far, and challenges with the upcoming October execution.

SB 450

A major change to the way Florida handles capital punishment took place in April 2023 with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of SB 540. The new bill removes the previously unanimous-vote requirement from a jury to enforce the death penalty. Now the State will only need eight out of twelve jurors to vote in favor of capital punishment.

You can read more about SB 450 in our blog post here.

Executions in 2023

The following lists the death row inmates who DeSantis signed execution warrants for so far in 2023:

  • Donald Dillbeck Executed on February 23, 2023, after serving 32 years on death row for a 1990 murder conviction. Marked as the first execution by Florida in three years, Dillbeck addressed the governor in his final statement:

“I know I hurt people when I was young. 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 men, women, and children. He’s put his foot on our necks.”

  • Louis Gaskin – Executed on April 12, 2023, after serving over three decades on death row for two murder convictions in 1990. He was known as the “Ninja Killer” for wearing an all-black ninja costume when he fatally shot two people in 1989. He was the 100th person in Florida to be executed.
  • Darryl Barwick – Executed on May 4, 2023, after serving on death row for several decades for a murder conviction after stabbing a 24-year-old in 1986 when he was only 19 years-old.
  • Duane Owen – Executed on June 15, 2023, after serving on death row for nearly four decades for the killing a 38-year-old woman and stabbing a 14-year-old teenage girl to death.
  • James Barnes – Executed on August 3, 2023, after serving 16 years on death row for admitting to the death of a second murder while serving a life sentence for killing his own wife in 1997.

The next death row inmate to be executed is Michael Duane Zack on October 3, 2023.

Challenges to Upcoming Execution of Michael Duane Zack

On August 17, 2023, DeSantis signed an executive warrant for 54-year-old death row inmate Michael Duane Zack. With the October execution date looming, Zack’s attorneys have taken their appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

According to a local news report, Zack’s attorneys filed a notice of appeal one day after Escambia County Circuit Judge Linda Nobles denied their request for a stay, along with rejecting their other arguments.

Zack was convicted of the 1996 murder of Ravonne Smith during a series of crimes that also resulted in the death of another woman. For nearly two decades, Zack’s legal team has filed a series of appeals, which both State and Federal courts have turned down.

The challenge to Zack’s conviction and upcoming execution surrounds the belief that he has an intellectual disability. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, executing a person with intellectual disabilities violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Zack alleges that he was diagnosed in 1997 with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. However, Nobles wrote that the argument is “procedurally barred” due to previous courts rejecting his claims of intellectual disability. Further, Nobles wrote:

“[The] alleged consensus [regarding the criteria for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to be considered an intellectual disability] does not constitute newly discovered evidence, and, even if it were, it has not been timely raised…Defendant’s claim is without merit. Intellectual disability is clearly defined under Florida law, and the defendant does not now claim he qualifies as intellectually disabled as so defined.”

If Zack’s execution is carried out, it will make him the sixth death row inmate to be executed in Florida just this year.

Case Update

Despite the challenges Zack’s defense team argued for a stay of execution, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle denied the block of the inmate’s upcoming execution.

Zack’s attorney claimed that their client’s due-process rights were violated due to a flawed clemency process. The court documents addressed how Zack’s defense team received a clemency interview in 2014 but didn’t hear back from the State until the clemency was denied when DeSantis issued Zack’s execution warrant on August 17, 2023.

The defense argues that they were prevented from presenting new evidence of Zack’s alleged Fetal Alcohol Syndrome being linked to an intellectual disability. Since the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled that executing individuals with an intellectual disability is a constitutional violation of cruel and unusual punishment, Zack would be exempt from execution.

“Thus, through no fault of Mr. Zack or his counsel, no clemency decisionmaker has been presented with the significant new understanding of Mr. Zack’s disability, which places him in the category of persons exempt from execution,” his attorney wrote in a brief.

The following is a statement from Judge Hinkle’s six-page order on denying Zack’s stay of execution:

“The state officials involved in the clemency process, including the governor and other members of the clemency board, were not obligated to somehow anticipate—without being notified by Mr. Zack—that he might have new information he wished to present. That he did not raise the issue is understandable; if the file was being ignored, any execution was being delayed. But understandable or not, it was Mr. Zack, not clemency officials, who possessed any new information and asserted there were new grounds for clemency. Nothing prevented him from presenting the information.”

Zack’s execution is set for October 3, 2023. His defense attorneys have also asked the Florida Supreme Court to halt the inmate’s execution on legal grounds, which they are still waiting a reply.

Reason for Speeding Up Florida Executions

As DeSantis prepares for the upcoming 2024 election, political commentators claim that the Florida Governor could be attempting to compete with former President Donald Trump, who had 13 federal inmates executed within his last six months in office.

A spokesperson for DeSantis’ office stated the reason for speeding up executions was due to the pandemic. However, one group challenged the claim about COVID-19, claiming that the timing of resuming executions at “an alarming rate” aligns with the 2024 election. There is also speculation that the choice could be due to the jury recommending the life in prison rather than the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, the defendant who caused the 2018 Parkland School shooting.

Maria DeLiberato, executive director for the group Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, gave the following statement regarding the increasing executions:

“The restarting of these executions seems to indicate—in large part because of his bid for president to appear tough on crime—he wants Florida to fall in line and be a law and order state. The problem and what we’ve urged is that it really will create chaos and instability in the system. These executions have further solidified that.”

Possibly More Executions Ahead with Newly Passed Bill

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in May 2023 that will allow the death penalty for defendants convicted of certain sex crimes against children.

Beginning October 1, 2023, Florida Statute Section 921.1425 is created to read the following:

“The Legislature finds that a person who commits a sexual battery upon, or in an attempt to commit sexual battery injures the sexual organs of, a person less than 12 years of age carries a great risk of death and danger to vulnerable members of this state.”

With the new legal changes, it requires that a person being prosecuted for sexual battery upon children will face a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. However, defendants facing these charges can also receive a more severe sentence: capital punishment. If the prosecution wishes to seek the death penalty, they must be able to identify at least two aggravating factors from the alleged crime to justify executing the defendant.

One issue with the new law is that it directly violates the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana. In that case, the Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional to use capital punishment for crimes other than murder. In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated, “the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.”

However, DeSantis’ office stated that they are “prepared to take this law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule” the existing precedent.

Contact a Tallahassee Defense Attorney

With DeSantis becoming tougher on Florida laws, hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney may be considered one of the most important aspects of a criminal case. When faced with criminal prosecution, you want a strong and vigilant team on your side. A defense attorney will review all case details, look for any holes in the prosecution’s case, and provide you with nonstop support.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, contact Pumphrey Law Firm. Our team of attorneys represent cases in Tallahassee and the surrounding North Florida areas. Contact our office today at (850) 681-7777 or leave us an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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