WASHINGTON — Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., moved ahead with his latest execution Feb. 23, over the objections of Florida’s Catholic bishops who appealed to the governor to reverse course on capital punishment. DeSantis, who is seen as a likely contender for the 2024 Republican presidential primary but has not declared his candidacy, is Catholic. He has signed four death warrants during his tenure, and Dillbecks’s was the third carried out.
DeSantis signed a death warrant for Donald Dillbeck in January, authorizing his Feb. 23 execution. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-minute petition for a stay of execution by Dillbeck’s attorneys on Feb. 22, who have argued that Dillbeck suffers from developmental disabilities as a result of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, as well as effects of childhood abuse.
After meeting with his spiritual adviser and eating a final meal, Dillbeck was executed Feb. 23 by lethal injection at 6:13 p.m., becoming the 100th person executed since Florida resumed the death penalty in 1975.
Dillbeck, 59, was convicted of the 1990 murder of Faye Lamb Vann in Tallahassee, fatally stabbing her while attempting to steal her car. At the time of the murder, Dillbeck had escaped from a work-release job while he was serving a life sentence for the killing of Lee County Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall in 1979, when he was 15.
DeSantis has sought to portray himself as tough on crime amid speculation about his candidacy for higher office. In a speech to the Florida Sheriff’s Association in January, DeSantis proposed changing state law to allow juries to impose the death penalty without unanimous agreement. State lawmakers later filed a bill to lower the threshold to 8 out of 12 jurors.
Out of 27 states that permit capital punishment, only three do not require a unanimous jury. Alabama allows a 10-2 decision, while Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to decide when there is a divided jury, according to the National Center for State Courts.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from OSV News on why he signed the death warrant.
But DeSantis’ position on capital punishment has placed him at odds with his state’s Catholic bishops and the church’s magisterium on the issue.
In a Feb. 6 letter, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops urged DeSantis to stay Dillbeck’s execution and commute his sentence to life without parole.
In the letter, Michael Sheedy, FCCB executive director on behalf of the bishops of Florida, acknowledged that Dillbeck’s “heinous and violent crimes have caused tremendous grief and suffering to the victims’ loved ones and communities.”
“We are deeply disheartened that you have signed a fourth death warrant,” Sheedy wrote.
Sheedy called the use of capital punishment “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,” he wrote. “The alternative to the death penalty of life-long incarceration without parole is a severe and more appropriate form of punishment that does not perpetuate the cycle of societal violence by taking someone’s life.”
Sheedy had written that Dillbeck’s execution “would only further coarsen society’s views on the sacredness of all human life” and also harm “the death row staff who must actively participate in his killing after spending years treating him with dignity and respect.”
DeSantis’ signing Dillbeck’s death warrant contrasted with Gov. Josh Shapiro, D-Pa., who called on the legislature Feb. 16 to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania and join 25 other U.S. states that have abolished the practice. While visiting a West Philadelphia church, Shapiro said he would not authorize its use during his term. Shapiro, who is vocal about his Jewish faith, said the decision was a matter of morality and his remarks dovetailed with the Catholic Church’s call to abolish the death penalty worldwide.
In his 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis cited the writings of one of his predecessors, St. John Paul II, who, he said, “stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.”
“There can be no stepping back from this position,” Pope Francis wrote in the document. “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”
Pope Francis also revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, No. 2267) in 2018 to reflect that position.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, told OSV News on Feb. 23 that she is “deeply saddened” that DeSantis authorized Dillbeck’s execution “after nearly four years without any executions in Florida.”
Vaillancourt Murphy explained the death penalty does not serve justice because it is also “an attack on the sanctity of life.”
Vaillancourt Murphy noted that Dillbeck’s case “embodies so much of what is broken within our capital punishment system.” She said Dillbeck had “a history of severe abuse and trauma, like so many others on death row in the U.S.” and yet the sentence of death was imposed on him “despite objections from a third of his jury.”
“His case reveals Florida’s death penalty for what it really is: nothing more than state-sanctioned bloodlust,” she said.
Noting DeSantis’ status as a potential presidential candidate, Vaillancourt Murphy said it is “not lost on us that people with political aspirations often use executions as a way to gain political support.”
Vaillancourt Murphy thanked the bishops of Florida “for being a consistent witness against the death penalty in their state, and we thank the hundreds of Catholics who took action through CMN’s Mercy in Action Project to urge Governor DeSantis to halt this execution.”