Listen above: Protesters outside Florida State Prison sing during the scheduled execution time for Donald Dillbeck.
RAIFORD, Florida — About 60 protesters of all ages stood across the street from Florida State Prison singing hymns, praying and speaking in opposition to the death penalty as convicted murderer Donald David Dillbeck was executed Thursday night.
Schoolchildren, teachers, advocates and attorneys gathered across the street from the prison holding red and black signs and wearing shirts that read “we oppose the execution this week.”
The vigil was hosted by multiple groups, including Floridians for Alternatives to The Death Penalty. Our Lady of Lourdes, a church in Daytona Beach, and Death Penalty Action took part in protests. At one point, several people stood up to toll bells.
Dillbeck was sentenced to death row in 1991. He is the 100th person to be executed since 1979. The last execution was in 2019.
Dillbeck had a varied history of crime. In 1979, when Dillbeck was 15, he stabbed a man in Indiana when he caught Dillbeck stealing a radio from a car. Then Dillbeck stole a car and drove to Florida. Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall found him sitting in the stolen vehicle and a fight ensued. Dillbeck got a hold of the deputy’s gun and shot him. Dillbeck was sentenced to life in prison.
Dillbeck was serving a life sentence when he escaped from a work catering job in 1990. He went to Tallahassee and attempted to carjack Faye Vann’s vehicle outside the Tallahassee Mall, according to court documents. When Vann resisted, Dillbeck fatally stabbed her.
Advocates from across the state of Florida and the country took part in trying to stop Dillbeck’s execution. His attorneys recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to block the execution due to Dillbeck being exposed to alcohol before birth and having a neurological condition. The Supreme Court rejected the petition and refused to block the execution.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a warrant for Dillbeck’s execution on Jan. 23.
Melanie Wilson, a middle school English teacher at Lourdes Academy Catholic School in Daytona Beach, stood watching with the crowd across from the prison. Wilson, 51, was there with her church, Our Lady of Lourdes and 10 of her middle school students.
Her church comes up for every execution in a bus, Wilson said, and oftentimes students from her middle school accompany them. All students have to get permission from their parents to attend, and they talk about capital punishment and the person being executed before the event, Wilson said.
She said in past visits, the trip had a major impact on the students, sparking some middle schoolers to write petitions or create videos to send to the governor.
“The ride home is a lot of processing of what happens,” Wilson said. “A part of our teachings for the Catholic Church is the sanctity of life, and so it’s from conception to natural death. Killing somebody who killed somebody doesn’t make good.”
Abraham Bonowitz, who lives in Ohio, is the director of Death Penalty Action and the founder and former director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He said DeSantis doesn’t understand that his support base doesn’t support the death penalty.
“His [the governor’s] base is concerned with government overreach and too much power. This failed government program known as the death penalty is OK? We say, no,” Bonowitz said.
While Bonowitz now considers himself a Democrat, he said he used to be registered as a Republican and supports DeSantis “doing the right thing.”
Maria DeLiberato, a part-time public defender in the Sixth Circuit in Tampa and Executive Director for Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, spoke at the vigil.
She said while they’re executing a person who took two lives, they’re also “executing an infant born addicted to alcohol…a four-year-old who was starved and beaten…an elementary schooler who was bounced around the foster care system alone” and more, she said referencing Dillbeck’s childhood.
“They’re executing a man that for the last 30 years spent behind these walls trying to atone for these devastating crimes,” DeLiberato said during the speech. “We grieve for his friends, for his loved ones, we grieve for the corrections officers who have to strap a healthy man to a gurney and kill him.”
DeLiberato has been a lawyer for 20 years and has represented two death row inmates, Larry Mann and Jerry Correll, who were both executed. For this execution, in particular, she said there was an unprecedented level of support she had not seen before from faith leaders across the state and country.
“I find a deep commitment to figuring out how to end the death penalty in Florida and replace it with something that keeps us safe, which is life without the possibility of parole,” DeLiberato said. “Executions don’t make us safer.”
DeLiberato said it’s important to acknowledge the opposition to the death penalty in Florida. She also said the national attitude toward the death penalty has shifted.
“Meeting these men, and sitting with these men and getting to know them over the years, and that they are more than the worst thing that they’ve ever done, that fuels my desire to end the death penalty,” DeLiberato said.
After the sentencing of the 2018 killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, DeSantis said the man sentenced to life without parole, Nikolas Cruz, deserved the death penalty.
DeLiberato said she thinks the verdict in the Parkland case was surprising to many people, especially those who didn’t watch or follow the trial. There was a lot of talk about the significant damage inflicted on Nikolas Cruz, and this, she believes, is why the jury decided on life without parole.
“The push to potentially change the death penalty statute back to where it was, where it was already declared unconstitutional, I think that is a direct result to Parkland,” DeLiberato said.
For some in the crowd, looking at the prison brought back gut-wrenching memories. Ralph Wright, 54, is Florida’s 27th exonerated death row survivor. He stared at the unit where he used to live, thinking about the people sitting in the prison now.
“Looking at all that, heaven forbid any of them be innocent, like I was, and think, ‘Oh, my God, could this actually happen to me one day?’” Wright said.
Wright was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend Paula O’Conner and 15-month-old son Alijahand in 2007. He was exonerated in 2017 after spending years in jail.
“Imagine the shot and kick in the gut when I’m told I’m under arrest, and for something I didn’t do, and then, later on, to be told I’m being sentenced to death for it,” Wright said.
The Q Wing, where the prison’s death chamber is located, was right next to the G Wing, where Wright stayed for years. He pointed to both of them from the grassy area across from the prison.
“I had no idea how close I was to the execution chamber itself,” Wright said. “And we could look right off the window with that little pathway where you see the brake lights coming on and see the vans coming in and going out.”
Wright was in the Air Force and served for 22 years. He is currently an entertainment tour bus driver.
He said people don’t realize the concept of the death penalty because they have no idea what they’re advocating when they have never stepped foot in a prison. The real punishment is a life sentence, something he said he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.
“What does executing this man today do for you, me or anybody else in this state tonight or tomorrow,” Wright asked. “How are things better for us? How does this serve me, benefit me, or in any way do good for me?”
At the end of the speeches, singing and praying, the sun started to set over the building, and the crowd silently looked out at the prison. At one point during a final speech, a flock of birds flew over the building, which the speaker called attention to.
Vann’s family issued a written statement through the Department of Corrections.
“11,932 days ago, Donald Dillbeck brutally killed our Mother,” it read. “We were robbed of years of memories with her and it has been very painful ever since. However, the execution has given us some closure. We are grateful to (the governor) for carrying out the sentence.”
Dillbeck used his last words to criticize the governor.
“I know I hurt people when I was young,” he said. “I really messed up. But I know Ron DeSantis has done a lot worse. He’s taken a lot from a lot of people. I speak for all the men, women and children; he’s put his foot on our necks.”
The statement ended with obscene language toward the governor.
Watch below: WUFT visual journalist Rae Riiska captured the scene outside Florida State Prison before, during and after the execution.