What is a Warrant of Execution?

January 27, 2023 Criminal Defense

In the most serious criminal offenses, the defendant may face capital punishment—meaning death by electrocution or lethal injection. There are multiple offenses in Florida that are severe enough to result in such sentencing. After the death penalty has been sentenced in court, the next step after sending the convicted defendant to Death Row is to have the Governor sign a warrant of execution.

An execution warrant is an official document that states the defendant must be killed as punishment for their crime. The warrant is typically signed by the Governor, who then determines when the convicted person will be executed. This article will provide information on how warrants of execution work in Florida, along with the most recent execution warrant signed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

How the Death Sentence Works in Florida

Under Florida Statute Section 921.141, when a defendant is accused of a capital offense, the jury makes a sentencing recommendation of either life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. If the recommendation is for the death penalty, then the vote must be unanimous and the jury must have found aggravating factors in the case.

Once the judge receives the recommendation, the judge makes the ultimate decision. The judge can impose the death penalty, but can only consider the aggravating factors that the jury found. If the jury’s recommendation is life, then the judge cannot impose the death penalty over the jury’s recommendation. Once the defendant is sentenced to death the defendant will go to Death Row—the prison facility for inmates who are set to be sentenced to death.

In Florida, there are currently 301 inmates on Death Row. They will remain there until the State’s Governor signs a death warrant—which sets the execution time and date. In contrast to Texas—which is the state that most actively initiates the death penalty—where the court determines the execution date.  

Issuance of Warrant of Execution

Florida Statute Section 922.052 covers the State’s issuance of a warrant of execution. After a defendant is sentenced to the death penalty, the clerk of courts is required to prepare a certified copy of the record of conviction and sentence. After, the Sheriff will send the recorded information to the Governor and the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court.

The next step is for the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court to inform the Governor in writing certifying that a person convicted and sentenced to death, before or after the effective date of the act, has:

  1. Completed the person’s direct appeal and initial postconviction proceeding in state court and habeas corpus proceeding and appeal therefrom in federal court; or
  2. Allowed the time permitted for filing a habeas corpus petition in federal court to expire.

After receiving the letter of certification from the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court, the Governor has 30 days to issue a warrant of execution if the executive clemency process has concluded, directing the warden to execute the sentence within 180 days, which has been designated in the warrant.

If the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court has not complied with the above provisions with respect to any person who has been sentenced to death, then the Governor has the ability to sign the warrant of execution for such person where the clemency process has concluded. However, the sentence shall not be executed until the Governor has issued the warrant, attaches it to the copy of the record, and transmits it to the warden, which then directs the warden to execute the sentence at the designated time.

If for any reason the death sentence is not executed in the designated time set by the Governor, the warrant will remain in full force and in effect until it is carried out.

Execution of Death Sentence

Florida Statute Section 922.10 explains that the warden of the Florida State Prison is the one who will designate the executioner. The warrant which authorizes the execution must be read to the convicted person immediately before the execution takes place. In Florida, the death sentence execution can take place by electrocution or lethal injection.

Return of Warrant of Execution Issued by Governor

Once the execution has taken place, the prison warden is required to send back the warrant along with a signed statement of execution to the Secretary of State, as codified under Florida Statute Section 922.12. In addition, the warden must file an attested copy of the warrant and statement with the clerk of the court that imposed the sentence.

Sentence of Death Unexecuted for Unjustifiable Reasons

In the event that the Governor unjustifiably fails to issue an execution warrant and the death sentence is not executed, Florida Statute Section 922.14 explains that the Supreme Court is then allowed to issue a warrant which directs the sentence to be executed during a time they designate.

Return of Warrant of Execution Issued by the Supreme Court

Florida Statute Section 922.15 explains that if the Governor fails to issue the execution warrant, for any unjustifiable reason, which leads to the Supreme Court issuing the execution warrant, then the warden is required to send the warrant along with a signed statement of the execution to the Secretary of State. In addition, the warden is required to file an attested copy of the warrant and statement with the clerk of court that imposed the sentence. Afterward, the warden must send another attested copy of the warrant and statement to the Governor.

DeSantis Signs Most Recent Warrant for Execution

The most recent Death Row inmate to receive the warrant for execution is Donald David Dillbeck. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the warrant on Monday, setting Dillbeck’s execution date for February 23rd, 2023 at 6pm. This marks the fourth warrant for execution signed by DeSantis during his time in office.

Dillbeck, 59, was convicted of stabbing Faye Vann in 1990, which resulted in her death. Dillbeck had already been serving a life sentence for killing a Lee County Deputy in 1979, in which he grabbed the officer’s gun and shot him twice after trying to outrun him. After 11 years of serving his life sentence, Dillbeck managed to escape from an off-site vocational program in Quincy.

Two days after his escape, Dillbeck purchased a knife and looked for a vehicle to steal in a Tallahassee mall parking lot. He noticed Vann sitting alone in a car—as she had been waiting for her family while they were inside shopping. Dillbeck asked Vann for a ride, and when she refused, he proceeded to fatally stab her 19 times. Dillbeck then stole Vann’s car but ended up crashing not far away which led to his arrest.

The following year Dillbeck was sentenced to the death penalty after the jury had a majority 8-4 vote. Now after waiting on Death Row for over 20 years, he is finally being sentenced to death next month.

Dillbeck’s death will be the first execution Florida has had in over three years—the last being Gary Ray Bowles who was executed in 2019. This also marks the longest the state has gone without carrying out an execution since 1983. DeSantis did sign another warrant for execution in September 2019, for Death Row inmate James Dailey. Dailey was convicted of the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. However, the execution got delayed and was never rescheduled.

The following list compares DeSantis to other Florida Governors and their number of execution warrants that they signed while in office:

  • Bob Graham – 16 executions
  • Bob Martinez – 9 executions
  • Lawton Chiles – 18 executions
  • Jeb Bush – 21 executions
  • Rick Scott – 28 executions (the highest amount in Florida)

“The signing of the death warrants and the death penalty execution was one of the most difficult parts of the job,” Bush said in an email to The Associated Press. “It was draining in every way. I never felt comfortable doing it but I was duty bound to do so.”

Criminal Charges Resulting in the Death Penalty

An individual can be sentenced to the death penalty if they have been convicted of a capital felony in Florida. The following is a list of criminal offenses that could result in capital punishment:

  • Murder – If it consists of aggravating factors or is especially heinous;
  • Serial killings – More than two murders by the same person;
  • Kidnapping, rape, home invasion – When it results in the death of another person with aggravating factors;
  • Drug trafficking – When it results in the death of another person; and/or
  • Sexual battery – If the victim was under the age of 12 and the offender is 18 or older.

Since capital punishment is considered the most severe out of all types of sentencing, any person who is accused of a capital offense should immediately seek out legal guidance from a defense attorney in their area.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Penalties for criminal convictions are harsh in Florida—but this is especially true for capital offenses. Florida is one of several remaining states that implements the death penalty—which means, depending on the alleged offense, that a convicted defendant could end up with a lethal injection or the electric chair.

If you or someone you know is being accused of a crime, your first step should be reaching out to a skilled criminal defense lawyer in your area. An experienced attorney will work with you to review all the information from the case and strategize a strong defense. Don Pumphrey and his team have years of experience representing Florida residents accused of criminal offenses. Contact Pumphrey Law Firm today and receive a free consultation regarding your case at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

Back to Top