Florida justices refuse to block the execution of a Tallahassee killer
The Florida Supreme Court rejected appeals by a death row inmate who is scheduled to be executed in the 1990 murder of a woman during a carjacking in a Tallahassee mall parking lot.
Justices also refused to issue a stay of the execution of Donald David Dillbeck, whose death warrant was signed last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The execution, scheduled for Feb. 23, would be the first time a prisoner has been put to death in Florida since 2019.
In asking the Supreme Court to block the execution, Dillbeck’s attorneys pointed, in part, to his diagnosis with a condition related to being exposed to alcohol before birth.
The attorneys argued that the condition, neurodevelopmental disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, or ND-PAE, is “recognized by the medical community as an intellectual disability-equivalent condition.” The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing intellectually disabled people violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Results of testing “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, judgment, behavior, impulse control and intentionality,” the attorneys wrote in a Feb. 10 brief at the Florida Supreme Court. “These results showed Mr. Dillbeck to be developmentally disabled and biologically predisposed to overreact to stress.”
But justices rejected the argument on a series of grounds, including that in 2020 the court denied a motion on the issue because it found Dillbeck and his attorneys “had failed to diligently pursue a diagnosis of ND-PAE.”
“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,” the 27-page decision said. “Even if our prior ruling did not procedurally bar him, Dillbeck’s claim still comes too late to be newly discovered evidence.”
The court unanimously rejected two appeals filed by Dillbeck’s attorneys and the request for a stay. Justice Jorge Labarga did not sign on to the opinion but supported its result.
Dillbeck, now 59, was initially sentenced to life in prison in the 1979 shooting death of Lee County sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall when Dillbeck was 15. But in 1990, he walked away from a catering function in Quincy where he and other inmates were working.
Dillbeck went to Tallahassee, got a knife and tried to carjack a vehicle, according to court documents. Faye Vann, who was sitting in the car, resisted and was fatally stabbed, with Dillbeck then arrested after crashing the car. He was convicted in 1991 of first-degree murder, armed robbery and armed burglary, Department of Corrections records show.
If the death sentence is carried out, Dillbeck would be the first Florida inmate executed since Gary Ray Bowles was put to death by lethal injection in August 2019. Bowles was executed for a 1994 murder in Jacksonville.
Death-penalty opponents have called on DeSantis to halt the execution.
In a Feb. 6 letter to the governor, Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Dillbeck’s “heinous and violent crimes have caused tremendous grief and suffering to the victims’ loved ones and communities.”
But the letter pointed to “mitigating” circumstances, such as neurological damage caused by Dillbeck exposure to alcohol before birth and physical and sexual abuse when Dillbeck was a child.
“We also ask that you choose life for Mr. Dillbeck because of the harms caused by implementing the death penalty in Florida,” Sheedy wrote. “Its use is a violation of the dignity of the person and an indictment on the low value placed on human life itself in society. We hold that the death penalty should be inadmissible due to modern systems of incarceration whereby society can be kept safe and prisoners punished.”
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