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The U.S. Supreme Court is asked to halt a Tallahassee killer's execution

Capital Punishment graphic

With Florida poised to carry out its first execution since 2019, attorneys for convicted murderer Donald David Dillbeck went to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to try to prevent Dillbeck from being put to death.

Dillbeck’s attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up an appeal, contending in part that he should be shielded from execution because of a neurological condition related to being exposed to alcohol before birth. The attorneys also asked for a stay of the execution, which is scheduled Thursday.

The Florida Supreme Court last week rejected a request to block the execution. Dillbeck’s attorneys say the condition, neurodevelopmental disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, or ND-PAE, is a developmental disability — which could prevent the execution under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“(The) medical community now recognizes that the unique, cognitive, practical, and social impairments inherent to neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure are indistinguishable from those of intellectual developmental disability,” the motion for a stay said. “This consensus has given rise to an important constitutional issue: that Mr. Dillbeck is exempt from execution under the Eighth Amendment protections.”

But Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office filed documents Monday urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reject Dillbeck’s arguments.

“Dillbeck will not succeed in having this (Supreme) Court kowtow to the views of the medical community,” lawyers in Moody’s office wrote in objecting to the requested stay. “While Dillbeck asserts that the medical community now views ND-PAE as the functional equivalent of intellectual disability, courts determine Eighth Amendment law, not the medical community.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed a death warrant for Dillbeck and scheduled Thursday’s execution. If carried out, it would be the first execution in Florida since Gary Ray Bowles was put to death by lethal injection in August 2019 for a murder in Jacksonville.

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.

The Florida Supreme Court last week rejected Dillbeck’s arguments on a series of grounds, including that in 2020 the court denied a motion on the disability 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 (execution) 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 Florida court’s 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.”

In addition to the disability issue, Dillbeck’s attorneys on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider that a jury voted 8-4 to recommend a death sentence for Dillbeck. After two court rulings in 2016, Florida lawmakers in 2017 changed a law to require unanimous jury recommendations before judges can impose death sentences — though that change does not apply retroactively to defendants such as Dillbeck.

Lawmakers are expected during this year’s legislative session to consider moving away from the unanimous jury requirement, a move backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But Dillbeck’s attorneys argued that the Eighth Amendment prevents executing people without unanimous jury recommendations, writing Monday that “there is an indisputable, national consensus in favor of unanimous jury death sentences.”