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Court declines to stay execution of Florida man whose jury did not unanimously vote for death penalty

The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the execution of Donald David Dillbeck to move forward in Florida, denying his request for a stay in a brief, unsigned order. There were no recorded dissents.

Dillbeck was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of Faye Vann during a carjacking outside a Tallahassee shopping mall. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison on Thursday.

In his appeal to the court, Dillbeck argued that the Eighth Amendment bars his execution for two reasons. First, he suffered from a neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, a diagnosis that did not exist at the time of his trial. Second, a non-unanimous jury recommended that he receive the death penalty. In almost every other state that uses the death penalty, a jury must decide the sentence unanimously. But in 1991, when Dillbeck was sentenced, Florida law allowed juries to recommend the death penalty by a simple majority vote. Dillbeck’s jury voted 8-4 to recommend that he be executed.

Florida’s law on non-unanimous juries was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that jurors must agree unanimously on the decision. Four years later, a more conservative state supreme court ruled that a jury only needed to be unanimous on one part of their decision: establishing an aggravating factor.

In response to Dillbeck’s appeal, Florida provided the justices with a detailed picture of that aggravating evidence. Vann was stabbed to death as Dillbeck attempted to escape from a life sentence he was already serving for a 1979 attempted-murder charge and the subsequent murder of Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall on a Fort Meyers beach. Dillbeck was 15 when he shot and killed Hall in his attempt to flee.

The state argued that the Florida Supreme Court had already addressed the Hurst claim but found it was not retroactive and that Dillbeck’s diagnoses did not qualify him for an exemption from execution.

In recent weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators in Florida have called for a return to a split jury system for recommending the death penalty. The same day he signed Dillbeck’s death warrant, DeSantis said in a speech at a Florida Sheriffs’ Association conference that eight jurors should be the minimum required to vote for a death-penalty recommendation. “[W]e can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” he said. A bill echoing this idea was introduced in the state House and Senate this month.

Recommended Citation: Ellena Erskine, Court declines to stay execution of Florida man whose jury did not unanimously vote for death penalty, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 23, 2023, 2:27 PM),