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As execution of Duane Owen looms, here are some facts about death penalty in Florida

Evolution of Florida death penalty: From hangings to electrocutions to lethal injections
Hearse arrives at Florida State Prison in 2002
Posted at 1:43 PM, Jun 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-13 13:44:23-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Duane Owen is scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday night.

The 62-year-old killer and rapist was convicted of the 1984 murders of Karen Slattery, 14, in Delray Beach, and Georgianna Worden, 38, in Boca Raton.

If the execution is carried out, Owen will become just the third person to be convicted of murder in Palm Beach County to be executed by the state.

With the execution looming, WPTV takes a look at some key facts to know about the state's death penalty.

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.

media photographs Florida's electric chair 'Old Sparky' in 1989
The electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky," is the focus of attention by the media during a rare press tour of Florida State Prison in August 1989.

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.

Death Row

There are currently 294 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 significantly outnumber Black inmates. There are 176 white death row inmates compared to 106 who are Black.

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 102 murderers — 44 by electrocution and 58 by lethal injection.

John Arthur Spenkelink was the first to be put to death in Florida in the modern era. He was electrocuted on May 25, 1979.

John Arthur Spenkelink in 1977
John Arthur Spenkelink, right, seen sitting next to his attorney, Andrew Graham, at a Nov. 17, 1977, news conference, says he keeps his mind on legal briefs and other reading rather than on being designated first to be executed in Florida since 1964.

The last Florida execution was Darryl Barwick on May 3, 2023.

Owen will become the fourth person to be executed in Florida this year. The three executions so far are the most in a single year since 2017 when four death row inmates were executed.

The most executions in a single year occurred in 1984 and 2014 when eight people were put to death.

'Old Sparky'

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.

Florida electric chair 'Old Sparky' in 1986
The death chamber at Florida State Prison is shown in this Jan. 17, 1996, file photo, with the three-legged oak electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky." The horizontal opening below the clock is the window through which the black-hooded executioner views the prisoner.

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.

Florida State Prison warden poses next to new 'Old Sparky' in 1999
Florida State Prison Warden James Crosby stands by the newly constructed electric chair during a media tour Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1999.

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. "A person convicted and sentenced to death for a capital crime at any time shall have one opportunity to elect that his or her death sentence be executed by electrocution," according to Florida law.

This happened in 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.

Ted Bundy interview, Jan. 23, 1989
A tearful Ted Bundy discusses his views of violence and sex during a taped interview with Dr. James Dobson, Jan. 23, 1989, at Florida State Prison. Bundy was scheduled to be executed the next morning.

Toxic Cocktail

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 Ricky Dixon wrote in March 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 executioner is a private citizen who is paid $150 per execution. He or she must be an adult, undergo a criminal background check and be sufficiently trained to administer the flow of lethal chemicals. The identity of the executioner, selected by the warden, can be anonymous, per state law.

Florida's most infamous 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.

hearse carrying body of Danny Rolling leaves Florida State Prison in 2006
A hearse carrying the body of Danny Rolling passes guards as it drives out of Florida State Prison after the serial killer was executed by lethal injection Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006, for the murders of five college students in 1990.

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.

protesters outside Florida State Prison at Oba Chandler execution in 2011
Death penalty opponents demonstrate outside Florida State Prison, where Oba Chandler, who has has been on death row for 17 years for the 1989 killings of an Ohio woman and her two teenage daughters, was to be executed Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. Chandler, 65, was given a lethal injection and pronounced dead at 4:25 p.m.

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.

protesters outside Florida State Prison before execution of Clarence Hill in 2006
Bonnie Flassig speaks to opponents of the death penalty outside Florida State Prison a short time before the execution of Clarence Hill was to take place Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006. Hill won a last-minute Supreme Court stay about an hour after he was scheduled to be executed for killing a police officer.

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.

After a Broward County jury failed to unanimously recommend the death penalty for convicted Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was "very disappointed" by the decision and would push to revise the state's death penalty law.

The governor kept his promise in 2023, signing into law a bill that allows for capital punishment with a jury recommendation of 8-4 in favor of execution.

DeSantis also signed legislation that would allow people convicted of raping children 12 or younger to be sentenced to death. The law, which is likely to be challenged, takes effect in October.

Waiting to Die

The final hours of a death row inmate's life are more eventful than most days, aside from the obvious.

Death row inmates are typically served meals three times per day at 5 a.m., from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., and from 4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Death row at Florida State Prison in 1989
An unidentified death row inmate in the "Q" wing of Florida State Prison views a photographer using a hand mirror during a rare escorted media visit in August 1989.

On the day of an execution, the prisoner can request a last meal to be personally prepared by the prison's food service director. To avoid extravagance, the food and drink choice must not exceed $40, cannot include alcoholic beverages, must be available at the institution, and requires approval by the food service director.

The prisoner will also be granted one last shower, although he or she must be accompanied by at least one corrections officer "of the same gender" to "supervise the showering of the inmate."

If the prisoner has any last words, he or she will be given the opportunity to do so in front of witnesses to the execution.

Once the execution has been carried out, the governor is notified via an open telephone line in the execution chamber, and the prisoner's body is taken in a hearse to the medical examiner's office in nearby Gainesville.