Update in the Donald David Dillbeck Execution

February 24, 2023 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

A new update has occurred in the Donald David Dillbeck case, just days before he is set to receive the death penalty. The defendant’s attorneys requested a stay from the Florida Supreme Court on the grounds that their client has evidential proof of an intellectual disability. However, the Florida Supreme Court denied the request.

This article will provide information on the case, the request to block the execution, define a stay in criminal law, and explain what it means to be intellectually disabled in a criminal case.

Death Warrant Signed by DeSantis

In a previous blog post on Warrants of Execution, we briefly covered the case of defendant Donald David Dillbeck. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder for the fatal stabbing of Faye Vann in 1990.

Dillbeck was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty after the jury reached a majority 8-4 vote in favor of capital punishment. The defendant spent over two decades on Death Row, but now Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed the warrant for execution, which is scheduled to take place at 6:00 P.M. on February 23rd, 2023.

To read more about Dillbeck’s case details, refer to our blog post here.

Defense’s Request to Block Execution

After the warrant of execution was signed, Dillbeck’s defense attorneys requested that the Florida Supreme Court block his execution. They are alleging that the defendant suffers from an intellectual disability.

According to the report, Dillbeck’s attorneys argued that he was exposed to alcohol prior to being born, resulting in prenatal alcohol exposure, or ND-PAE. This condition is “recognized by the medical community as an intellectual disability-equivalent condition.” Based on previous U.S. Supreme Court cases, it is considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute any person who is intellectually disabled.

The brief filed by Dillbeck’s attorneys on February 10th, 2023, states that the testing results “indicated widespread and profound neurological damage throughout Mr. Dillbeck’s brain, with particular abnormality in the portions of the brain most responsible for regulating planning, mood, judgement, behavior, impulse control and intentionality.”

In other words, the results revealed evidence that the defendant is developmentally disabled, and “biologically predisposed to overreact to stress.”

However, despite the defense attorney’s brief, the Supreme Court justices rejected their argument. One of the main reasons points to the denied motion in 2020 on the issue that Dillbeck and his attorneys “failed to diligently pursue a diagnosis of ND-PAE.”

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected two appeals filed by Dillbeck’s attorneys and the request for a stay.

The following is a statement from the Supreme Court’s 27-page decision:

“Attempting to avoid the procedural bar of our 2020 decision and establish due diligence in bringing his exemption claim, Dillbeck argues that his exemption claim is not based on the same evidence from [the 2020] proceeding, but on a ‘sociolegal tipping point’ that ND-PAE is the equivalent of intellectual disability that is happening now, in 2023. Even if our prior ruling did not procedurally bar him, Dillbeck’s claim still comes too late to be newly discovered evidence.”

With Dillbeck’s execution set to go through on February 23rd, 2023, it marks the first execution in Florida since 2019.

What is the Effect of a Stay?

In relation to criminal law, a “stay” is an act that temporarily stops a judicial proceeding through a court order. The two types of stays are a stay of execution and a stay of proceedings.

When a stay of execution is ordered, it stops the action or court decision being carried out, such as an imposed execution. On the other hand, a stay of proceedings only stops the litigation from continuing temporarily. Some reasons for a court to order a stay would be if there is another proceeding occurring that could affect the present proceeding or if either the defendant or other party must do something prior to the proceeding to continue.

Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty

In 1989, during the Penry v. Lynaugh case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 vote the constitutionality of going through with executing those convicted of crimes with intellectual disability. According to the Court, “intellectual disability” should be considered a mitigating factor when the jury is sentencing a person to the death penalty. A mitigating factor is any circumstance or fact which could lessen the severity or culpability of a criminal act.

The Supreme Court later issued what was considered a “landmark ruling ending the death penalty for individuals with intellectual disability” on June 20th, 2002. The case was Atkins v. Virginia, which held that executing those with intellectual disabilities was a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Eight Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

In terms of the scope of Constitutional Protection, University of New Mexico’s Law Professor James W. Ellis explains that the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins applies to all defendants who “fall within the range of [intellectually disabled] offenders about whom there is a national consensus.”

Each State can adopt its own variation on the definition and wording; however, the State cannot “adopt a definition that encompasses a smaller group of defendants, nor may they fail to protect any individuals who have [intellectual disability] under the definition embodied in the national consensus.”

The common definitions for mental retardation address the following three components:

  1. A substantial intellectual impairment;
  2. The impact of that impairment on the everyday life of the individual; and
  3. The appearance of the disability at birth or during the person’s childhood.

Professor Ellis states that unless the defendant falls under all three of these requirements, they do not fall under the definition of intellectual disability.

In the 2014 case of Hall v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court found that an IQ cutoff was unconstitutional. Florida’s strict law made it so that the defendant, who had an IQ of 71—only one point above the 70 cutoff—could not present any additional intellectual disability evidence. The Court found this to be unconstitutional as an IQ test was not only inherently imprecise but such a finding was inhumane as it failed to recognize other relevant evidence.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “When a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.”       

When dealing with a criminal case in which the defendant has intellectual disabilities, it is especially important to work with a skilled Tallahassee criminal defense attorney who can provide the legal insight and expertise to ensure the defendant’s rights are protected.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Getting accused of a crime is a stressful situation for any person to endure. However, things can be even more complicated or worrisome when the person accused of the offense has intellectual disabilities. Working with a Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer is the best way to ensure their rights are not violated, and to work towards getting the charges lessened or dropped completely.

The attorneys at Pumphrey Law Firm have years of experience representing clients across Florida for various criminal accusations. We will strive to build a strong defense for your case. To receive a free consultation regarding your case, contact Don Pumphrey and his team at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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