With his signing of a death warrant for Duane Owen on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis has now approved four executions in less than four months, ending a long drought where he didn’t condemn any murderers to die.
That move comes as DeSantis is on the verge of declaring a bid for the White House, raising the question of whether he’s attempting to boost his conservative bona fides, as even Democrats such as former Gov. Bob Graham have done in the past.
DeSantis has said that legal complications and the pandemic delayed him from signing death warrants for more than three years and that politics has nothing to do with it.
But state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, contended it is “all part of his ambition to be the presidential nominee for the Republicans, to show that he’s tough on crime and he’s willing to impose the death penalty.”
DeSantis also signed two new bills into law that greatly expand the death penalty. One adds child sexual assault to the list of capital crimes, while another allows just eight of 12 jurors to sentence someone to die.
The governor’s expansion comes despite the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the practice, which has led to soul-searching on the part of Catholic Florida governors such as former Gov. Jeb Bush.
So is DeSantis, who has made his faith a key tenet of his political identity, a practicing Catholic who’s violating the church’s teachings? Asked twice, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin wouldn’t say.
Last year, Griffin did tell the Tampa Bay Times, “The governor is a Christian and there is absolutely no issue with him sharing his values or utilizing them in his decision-making as a leader.”
323 people on death row
Owen is scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 15 in the murders of Georgianna Worden and Karen Slattery in 1984 in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.
On May 3, the state executed Darryl Barwick for the 1986 murder of Rebecca Wendt in Panama City, which followed the April 12 execution of Louis Gaskin in the 1989 murders of a couple in Flagler County and the Feb. 23 execution of Donald David Dillbeck for a slaying in Tallahassee in 1990.
Dillbeck was the first person executed in more than three years, when Gary Ray Bowles was put to death in August 2019 for a 1994 murder in Jacksonville. There are currently 323 people on death row in Florida.
At an event on May 5, DeSantis explained the rise in executions this year, telling reporters, “This is the law of the land, and we’re going to make sure that it’s followed.”
DeSantis said executions “slid a little bit” because of legal issues such as the disputed guilt of a death row inmate. James Dailey claimed another man confessed to the 1985 murder of a woman in Pinellas County for which he was sentenced to death, but he failed to convince a court in 2020 and 2021 and is still awaiting execution.
The COVID-19 pandemic also led to delays, he said, as well as 2022 being an election year.
“We said, ‘Let’s just get through the election,’” DeSantis said. “And then we’re trying to get on a more normal pace with some of this.”
‘Far more complicated’
Griffin said the execution procedure “is far more complicated — and involves many more people and resources — than is commonly understood.”
That includes providing the drugs used in lethal injection, the requirement that state officials including DeSantis be physically present and on the phone, the presence of witnesses and family members, as well as medical professionals needing to be on hand.
For death warrants, the law requires “a complete exhaustion of remaining appeals and the egregiousness of the crime [or crimes] committed,” Griffin said, adding state emergencies such as hurricanes also delay the process.
Democrats have used executions to shore up their “tough-on-crime” credentials in the past.
Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton famously returned from the campaign trail in 1992 to oversee the execution of mentally impaired convict Ricky Ray Rector, while former Graham was nicknamed “Bloody Bob” for increasing executions in election years.
“Graham made a deal with the devil on the death penalty,” said Miami Herald editor Tom Fiedler, according to Slate. “He figured whatever good he wanted to achieve in politics would be lost if he didn’t give the people what they wanted.”
The expansion of the death penalty in Florida makes it stand out, even in the South.
“Alabama is the only other state that does not require jury unanimity when recommending a death sentence,” said Christie Arnold, associate for Social Concerns and Respect Life with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Alabama’s requirement is at least 10 jurors must agree,” Arnold said. “So for Florida to even go further than that … means that we are now the outlier on the death penalty in the nation.”
Notably, the bills received bipartisan support. State Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book spearheaded the child sexual assault expansion, citing her own history of child abuse by a caregiver.
Anger over the 2018 Parkland killer of 17 people escaping a death sentence by one juror’s vote also led many Democrats to back needing just eight votes to sentence death, including Book, Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, and Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando.
“It’s actually been really eye-opening in that regard, to see that it’s much less of a partisan issue than, say, abortion,” Arnold said. “And we have seen Republican members vote against these death penalty bills,” including state Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, and Ileana Garcia, R-Miami.
“There were a lot of crime victims’ families from Parkland present and testifying in favor of this bill,” said Neisha-Rose Hines, criminal justice policy strategist at ACLU of Florida, who testified against it.
Thompson, who voted against that bill, was also one of just five senators who voted against the child sexual assault bill.
“I think that many of our party supported this legislation because of their personal connection with our Democratic Leader in the Senate,” Thompson told the Orlando Sentinel. “But I just can’t, particularly when you think about the fact that many of the people on death row are Black and brown people, it’s just not something that I can support expanding.”
‘Violates human dignity’
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed those expansions as well as the death penalty in general, Arnold said.
“We believe it violates human dignity, is plagued with error, perpetuates violence and does not deter criminal acts,” Arnold said.
DeSantis identifies as Catholic, though whether he attends Mass weekly is not publicized. He attended Mass at Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida in October, according to the private college’s website.
Catholic governors in the past have been torn by their church’s teachings and their duties as governor.
Bush, a Catholic convert, said it was “hard for me, as a human being, to sign the death warrant,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2015. “… I’m informed by my faith in many things, and this is one of them.”
But, he added, “It was the law of the land when I was governor, and I faithfully dealt with it.”
Arnold said she couldn’t speak to whether violating Catholic teaching should result in a Catholic governor being barred from receiving communion, as some bishops have done with pro-abortion rights politicians.
“That’s up to each bishop, who has the authority over their specific parishioner who may or may not be the governor,” Arnold said.
Bishops’ decisions can vary greatly. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., said President Joe Biden could receive communion despite his support of abortion rights. The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, barred former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from communion in her home diocese.
“There has been a lot of noise made about that … but it’s happened very rarely,” Christine Firer Hinze, a professor of Christian ethics and chair of theology at Fordham University in New York, said of denying politicians communion for their actions in office. “However, it has happened occasionally. And I don’t know of any bishop in the U.S. who has done the same for a governor who signed a death warrant.”
The American church has an “undulating” standard for how they treat politicians, she said. But the current composition of American Catholic leaders, she added, “contains a lot more bishops who are vociferously for enforcing anti-abortion legislation than bishops who are vociferously for challenging capital punishment.”
David Cloutier, a professor of theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C, said the difference in emphasis between abortion and the death penalty has been debated for years.
“Is the Church saying something like abortion is a more serious or more grave matter than the death penalty, by focusing on one and not the other?” Cloutier said. “Technically, it should not be saying that and is not saying that. But that impression can be given.”
Hinze said the expansion of the death penalty to child rapists is particularly questionable theologically, where a life is not even being taken for another life.
“What is going to be the effect on the community of either executing this person or not executing this person?” she said, describing contemporary Catholic thinking. “[How is] putting them in jail for the rest of their life less effective than killing them?”
One thing should be clear for Catholics, Cloutier said.
“The issues of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment [are] all treated together in John Paul II’s encyclical on the culture of life. They all are offenses against the basic dignity of life that comes from God.”