5 things to know about death penalty in Florida
As a jury will decide the fate of convicted Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz in the coming months, WPTV takes a look at some key facts to know about the death penalty in Florida.
Florida's Long History of Capital Punishment
Florida has a long history of capital punishment dating back to the 1800s.
The first known execution in Florida was in 1827, when Benjamin Donica was hanged for murder.
Back in those days, public hangings were overseen and performed by sheriffs of the counties where the crimes occurred.
But this changed in 1923, when the Florida Legislature abolished public hangings and instead authorized the use of the electric chair as a more humane method of execution.
Frank Johnson was the first person to be executed by electrocution in Florida on Oct. 7, 1924.
Electrocution was the lone method of execution in the Sunshine State until 2000, when the controversial death of Allen Lee Davis prompted the state to make the switch to execution by lethal injection.
There are currently 305 prisoners waiting on death row in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Of that number, just three are women. White inmates on death row outnumber Black inmates by 69. That is, there are 182 white death row inmates compared to 113 who are Black. The 10 others on death row are Hispanic or designated "other" by the Florida Department of Corrections.
There were no executions in the United States between 1967 and 1977.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, the state of Florida has executed 99 murderers -- 44 by electrocution and 55 by lethal injection.
John Arthur Spenkelink was the first to be put to death in Florida in the modern era. He was electrocuted May 25, 1979.
The last Florida execution was Gary Ray Bowles on Aug. 22, 2019.
Florida used the electric chair -- known as "Old Sparky" -- from 1924 to 1999. The rickety wooden chair was built by prisoners at Florida State Prison.
Florida's electric chair made headlines for its numerous malfunctions in the 1990s, namely involving the executions of Jesse Tafero, Pedro Medina and Davis.
Flames were seen shooting out of the heads of Tafero and Medina during their executions. It was later determined that the saline-soaked sponge stuffed between the inmate's head and the electrode to deliver the 2,300-volt spark was replaced with a synthetic sponge that caught fire during the May 4, 1990, execution of Tafero, while the sponge used during Medina's March 25, 1997, execution apparently wasn't properly soaked in saline, causing it to ignite.
The incidents led to a famous quote from former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.
"People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair," Butterworth said in 1997.
A new "Old Sparky" was constructed before Davis' July 8, 1999, execution. The new-and-improved "Old Sparky" had an adjustable headrest and a higher seat position to accommodate larger prisoners like Davis, who weighed 344 pounds. But the electrical components remained the same.
Photographs presented to the Florida Supreme Court after the execution of Davis showed that he had a bloody nose.
Believe it or not, while lethal injection is the primary method of execution in Florida, it is not the sole method. Death row inmates may still opt for the electric chair. This happened as recently as 2015, when Wayne Doty asked the state to electrocute him instead. Doty, who remains on death row, is the first and only prisoner to choose "Old Sparky" since electrocution became optional.
Florida's most notorious death row inmate to meet his demise sitting on "Old Sparky" was serial killer Ted Bundy in 1989 -- 10 years after he was sentenced to die for murdering two Chi Omega students at Florida State University.
Florida's lethal injection cocktail is comprised of a triple-drug formula.
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, the protocol requires the use of etomidate to sedate prisoners before injecting a paralytic and then potassium chloride, which stops a prisoner's heart.
In 2017, the Florida Department of Corrections revised its lethal injection protocol, substituting the sedative midazolam in favor of etomidate, which had never before been used for executions.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch noted in May that he had reviewed the state's lethal injection procedures and found them to be "compatible with evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, the concepts of the dignity of man, and advances in science, research, pharmacology and technology."
The most infamous Florida prisoner to die by lethal injection was serial killer Danny Rolling, who was executed in 2006 for the 1990 murders of four University of Florida students and one Santa Fe College student in Gainesville.
Marked for Death
It is up to the governor of Florida to sign the death warrant that ultimately seals the fate of Florida's next in line to be executed.
The sentence shall not be executed until the governor's warrant has been transmitted to the warden, indicating a designated date and time of death.
In 2013, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill intended to expedite capital punishment.
The law created tighter time frames for a person sentenced to death to make appeals and post-conviction motions and imposes reporting requirements on the progress.
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of Florida's death penalty law, saying it was not sufficient for a judge to determine the aggravating factors to be used in considering a death sentence. The high court ruled that Florida's law violated the Sixth Amendment.
The Florida Legislature amended the statute to comply with the decision in March 2014 and, in doing so, changed the sentencing method, requiring a supermajority to issue a death sentence. If fewer than 10 jurors voted in favor of death, life imprisonment was imposed.
Previously, a judge decided the sentence and the jury only provided its non-binding opinion.
This new law was challenged and, in October 2014, the Florida Supreme Court struck it down by a 5-2 vote, finding that death sentences can only be handed down by a unanimous jury.
In March 2017, the state Legislature passed a new statute complying with the Florida Supreme Court ruling. It also provided that, in the case of a hung jury, a life sentence must be issued.
The governor has the right to commute the death penalty. Gov. Bob Graham granted six clemencies during his time in office. No other Florida governor since 1976 has granted clemency to a death row inmate.
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