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Writ of Habeas Corpus Denied for Active Death Warrant signed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

Execution is scheduled for February 23, 2023 

Dillbeck was 15 years old when he committed his first murder by shooting Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall to death in 1979. He entered a negotiated guilty plea of first-degree premeditated murder and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Eleven years later, Dillbeck murdered again. While serving his sentence for the first murder of Deputy Hall, he walked away from a public function he and other inmates were catering in Quincy, Florida. He walked to Tallahassee, bought a paring knife, and attempted to hijack a car and driver from a shopping mall parking lot on June 24, 1990. Faye Vann, who was seated in the car, resisted, and Dillbeck stabbed her several times, killing her. Dillbeck attempted to flee in the car, crashed, and was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and armed burglary. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to consecutive life terms on the robbery and burglary charges, and, consistent with the jury’s eight to four recommendation, death on the murder charge. 

 

In sentencing Dillbeck to death for Vann’s murder, the trial court found five aggravating circumstances: “[1] that Dillbeck was under sentence of imprisonment and [2] had previously been convicted of another capital felony [Deputy Hall’s 1979 murder], and [3] that the murder was committed during the course of a robbery and burglary, [4] was committed to avoid arrest or effect escape, and [5] was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” citing § 921.141, Fla. Stat. (1989). 

 

In appealing the circuit court’s summary denial of his fourth successive postconviction motion, Dillbeck raises three issues: (1) the circuit court erred in summarily denying his claim that he is exempt from execution because he has a mental condition that is equivalent to intellectual disability; (2) the circuit court erred in summarily denying his claim that newly discovered evidence related to the prior violent felony aggravator requires vacating his death sentence or, at minimum, staying his execution to allow him to challenge the 1979 conviction that supports the prior violent felony aggravator; and (3) the Eighth Amendment precludes executing him after 30 years on death row. 

 

(1) Exemption from Execution  

Dillbeck first argues that the circuit court erred in summarily denying his claim that he is exempt from execution because he has a mental condition that is equivalent to intellectual disability. Dillbeck has an average IQ of 98 to 100, but he has been diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder called neurodevelopmental disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE). He relies on an alleged newly emerged medical and scientific consensus that ND-PAE is equivalent to an intellectual disability to argue that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require exempting him from execution. Dillbeck cites a 2021 article for the proposition that the medical and scientific community view ND-PAE as equivalent to intellectual disability, and that article in turn relies on older sources. “[N]ew opinions or research studies based on a compilation or analysis of previously existing data and scientific information” are not generally considered newly discovered evidence. Henry v. State, 125 So. 3d 745, 750 (Fla. 2013). But even if they could be, the record conclusively refutes that Dillbeck diligently pursued an exemption claim based on them. The alleged new scientific and medical consensus that undergirds Dillbeck’s claim has existed since at least 2021. Another timing problem for Dillbeck is that if his exemption claim is not a newly discovered evidence claim, which he repeatedly says it is not, then the claim is not cognizable at all in a successive postconviction motion. “Rule 3.851 requires in pertinent part that motions for postconviction relief must be filed within one year from when the conviction and sentence become final unless the claim is based on newly discovered evidence or a newly recognized fundamental constitutional right that has been held to apply retroactively.” Carroll v. State, 114 So. 3d 883, 886 (Fla. 2013) (citing Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.851(d)(1)(A)-(B); 3.851(d)(2)(A)-(B)). 

 

The Florida Supreme Court held that because Dillbeck’s exemption claim is time barred, procedurally barred, and without merit, and it affirmed the circuit court’s summary denial. 

 

(2) Newly Discovered Evidence Next 

Dillbeck argues that the circuit court erred in summarily denying his claim that newly discovered evidence related to the prior violent felony aggravator requires vacating his death sentence or, at minimum, staying his execution to allow him to challenge the 1979 conviction that supports the prior violent felony aggravator. To obtain relief where alleged newly discovered evidence relates to the penalty phase, “a defendant must establish: (1) that the newly discovered evidence was unknown by the trial court, by the party, or by counsel at the time of trial and it could not have been discovered through due diligence, and (2) that the evidence is of such a nature that it would probably . . . yield a less severe sentence on retrial.” Dailey v. State, 329 So. 3d 1280, 1285 (Fla. 

2021). 

 

After Governor Ron DeSantis signed Dillbeck’s death warrant, Dillbeck’s legal team obtained statements from five people who witnessed his “bizarre” behavior surrounding Deputy Hall’s 1979 shooting.  

 

Dillbeck argues that the doctors’ new opinions prove that his capacity was diminished during the prior murder, that he was insane at the time of the prior murder, and that he was incompetent to plead guilty to the prior murder. Finally, in response to the State’s argument below that Dillbeck’s detailed 1979 plea colloquy evinced his mental state, Dillbeck’s legal team obtained a statement from the assistant public defender who met with Dillbeck on the day he was arrested but did not otherwise have contact with him. Dillbeck argues that the attorney’s affidavit shows that his plea colloquy contains inaccurate representations because he answered affirmatively when asked if he had discussed the facts of the case with her, but she does not recall doing so. He also argues that this statement supports his new doctors’ reports questioning whether he was competent to plead guilty because it shows he had been primed to say “yes” during the colloquy. 

 

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the circuit court that Dillbeck’s newly discovered evidence claim is “decades late.” Rule 3.851(d)(2)(A) precludes filing a postconviction claim based on newly discovered evidence more than one year after the conviction and sentence of death become final unless “the facts on which the claim is predicated were unknown to the movant or the movant’s attorney and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence.” See also Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.851(e)(2) (requiring good cause for failing to assert successive claims earlier). “It is incumbent upon the defendant to establish the timeliness of a successive postconviction claim.” Mungin v. State, 320 So. 3d 624, 626 (Fla. 2020). 

 

In attempting to avoid the time bar, Dillbeck argues that due diligence only requires reasonable efforts. He contends that nothing in the 1979 witness statements would have given him or his counsel reason to know that there were third-party witnesses to his bizarre behavior who could shed light on his mental state at the time of the 1979 shooting. Florida Supreme Court disagreed. 

 

Dillbeck himself detailed his behavior during the shooting in his 1979 plea colloquy and again during his 1991 penalty phase testimony. It is also beyond dispute that there were witnesses who saw and even interacted with Dillbeck at the beach around the time of Deputy Hall’s shooting. Some of the statements taken in 1979 refer to other people who were present on the beach, so it is clear that law enforcement did not take statements from everyone and that there were other potential witnesses to question. Moreover, the 1979 witness statements contain observations about Dillbeck’s behavior: one witness stated that Dillbeck “[s]eemed like he was kinda depressed”; another said that Dillbeck was “pacing so hard an[d] . . . he looked like he was messed up.” Similarly, the arresting officer’s 1979 statement described Dillbeck as “bewildered.” Whether any of the witnesses at the beach, who were either expressly named or discoverable by due diligence, might have been able to describe Dillbeck’s behavior in a way that could have potentially aided him in advancing claims about his mental state is a question that diligent counsel would ask—particularly as Dillbeck’s mental state has been a feature of his claims for 30-plus years. Because counsel inquired “decades late,” the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the summary denial of Dillbeck’s newly discovered evidence claim as untimely. 

 

(3) Length of Time on Death Row 

In his third and last issue on appeal, Dillbeck argues that the circuit court erred in denying his claim that executing him after 30 years on death row violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Florida Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed, consistent with its longstanding precedent that such claims are “facially invalid,” including when the defendant’s stay on death row exceeded 30 years. Valle v. State, 70 So. 3d 530, 552 (Fla. 2011) (33 years); see also Lambrix v. State, 217 So. 3d 977, 988 (Fla. 2017) (over 31 years); Long v. State, 271 So. 3d 938, 946 (Fla. 2019) (over 30 years). 

 

“[N]o federal or state court has accepted the argument that a prolonged stay on death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.” Booker v. State, 969 So. 2d 186, 200 (Fla. 2007). And Dillbeck’s arguments about conditions on death row do not persuade us that our precedent is “clearly erroneous.” State v. Poole, 297 So. 3d 487, 507 (Fla. 2020); see also Muhammad v. State, 132 So. 3d 176, 207 (Fla. 2013) (holding that “the fact that [the defendant] was placed in special solitary confinement after murdering a correctional officer while on death row does not provide a sufficient distinguishing basis for this Court to depart from its established precedent” repeatedly rejecting the claim that “adding execution to the lengthy period of time . . . served on death row constitutes cruel and unusual punishment”) The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s denial of this claim. 

 

The Florida Supreme Court affirms the summary denial of Dillbeck’s motion and deny his habeas petition and denied the two motions for stay of execution.

 

View DONALD DAVID DILLBECK’s DEATH WARRANT signed by Governor Desantis.

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