Here's what to know about Florida's death penalty in 2023

Evolution of Florida death penalty: From hangings to electrocutions to lethal injection
Hearse arrives at Florida State Prison in 2002
Posted at 10:54 AM, Feb 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-24 12:31:01-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Now that Florida has carried out its first execution since 2019, 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 298 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 178 white death row inmates compared to 108 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 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.

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 Donald Dillbeck on Feb. 23, 2023.

'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. 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.

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 Mark Inch noted in May 2021 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.

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.