Florida executes another man sentenced to death by a divided jury

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the execution of Donald Dillbeck, a man on death row in Florida who was sentenced by a non-unanimous jury.


Donald Dillbeck killed a Lee County, Florida, deputy in 1979 when he was only 15 years old. Despite being sentenced to life imprisonment, Dillbeck managed to escape custody—by simply walking away—while working at a vocational center in 1990. He stole a paring knife and attempted to carjack a woman in the parking lot of a Tallahassee mall. She resisted and Dillbeck stabbed her multiple times, causing her death.

Dillbeck was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and armed burglary in 1991 and sentenced to death by a jury split 8-4. He was killed by lethal injection Thursday evening.

Non-unanimous juries

Of the 27 states with the death penalty in effect, only three currently allow defendants to be sentenced to death by non-unanimous juries.

Alabama requires at least 10 of 12 jurors to agree on the death penalty. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “only 20% of the people currently on death row received unanimous jury verdicts for death.” Rep. Chris England, a Democratic lawmaker from Tuscaloosa, recently introduced House Bill 14 to require a unanimous jury to vote for the death sentence.

“Executing someone should be hard. It should be next to impossible,” England said. He also noted that a person cannot be convicted of capital murder without a unanimous jury decision, and said his bill would apply that logic to the sentencing phase of cases.

The document introducing HB14 said, “This bill would provide that a defendant may be resentenced if a judge sentenced him or her to a sentence other than the jury’s advisory sentence and if his or her death sentence was not unanimous.”

In Missouri and Indiana, when a jury is not unanimous on a sentence, a lone judge is given the monumental power of determining whether a defendant lives or dies. Only one Missouri jury has sentenced an individual to death since 2013. In the same time, five people have been sentenced to death by judges in the state.


Florida, where Dillbeck was executed, previously allowed non-unanimous death penalty sentences. Prior to 2016, jurors could recommend a death sentence by a 7-5 vote, with the trial judge making the final determination. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016’s Hurst v. Florida that the state’s procedure was unconstitutional. “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. “A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”

The state legislature—spurred to action by the state Supreme Court—eventually revamped its sentencing law, requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for a judge to impose the death penalty. The justices held, however, that the new requirements would not be applied to individuals sentenced before June 24, 2002 (the date of a different U.S. Supreme Court case). Therefore, people like Dillbeck who were condemned to death by a non-unanimous jury before June 2002 have no way to challenge their sentence.

That’s not the end: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently suggested lawmakers reverse the unanimous jury requirement after Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz received life in prison from a divided 9-3 jury.

DeSantis, in a speech to the Florida Sheriffs Association on Monday, expressed disappointment in the Parkland school shooter being given life in prison. Three out of 12 jurors voted against the death penalty in that case. DeSantis said death penalty verdicts shouldn’t be “vetoed” by one juror, and instead suggested a supermajority vote.

“Maybe eight out of 12 have to agree or something, but we can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” DeSantis said.

An 8 out of 12 threshold would be the lowest in the country.