Churches urge Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to stay execution of Donald Dillbeck
(RNS) — Churches across Florida, including Catholic, Unitarian Universalist and Latino evangelical congregations, have been holding prayer vigils, urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to stay the execution of Donald David Dillbeck, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday evening (Feb. 23).
Dillbeck was convicted of fatally stabbing Faye Vann, 44, after he escaped from custody while serving a life sentence for killing Lee County Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall.
Dillbeck’s attorneys have argued that his neurobehavioral disorder — which they say is similar to an intellectual disability and related to alcohol exposure before birth — should exempt him from execution under constitutional law. The state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have denied appeals to exempt Dillbeck from execution.
His execution is set for 6 p.m. Thursday.
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The organization Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has been gathering signatures and organizing groups to pressure DeSantis, who signed Dillbeck’s death warrant on Jan. 23, to stay the execution.
Maria DeLiberato, executive director for Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said it’s been powerful to see the faith community join the cause, particularly Latino evangelical congregations and Catholic churches, as they honor their traditions in protection of life.
“It’s evidence of their deep commitment that all life is sacred,” DeLiberato said.
Florida churches including Centro Cristiano El Pan de Vida in Kissimmee, Iglesia Cristiana para las Naciones in Orlando, Centro de la Familia in Tampa and El Calvario in Orlando have hosted prayer events leading up to Thursday.
In a video, Pastor David Rivera, of Iglesia De Dios Pentecosta in Tampa, delivered a message to the governor, urging in English and Spanish for DeSantis to consider clemency for Dillbeck.
“We understand that God is doing the work,” Rivera said.
Several Catholic churches, including Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola Chapel in Palm Beach Gardens, San Pedro Church in North Port and Sacred Heart Church in Punta Gorda, are holding Mass services and vigils on Thursday with hours leading up to the execution.
“Dillbeck’s childhood was marked with severe trauma and physical and sexual abuse, including extreme prenatal exposure to alcohol, leading to developmental disabilities from birth,” read a statement issued by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops in late January.
“Taking Mr. Dillbeck’s life is unnecessary to keep society safe and perpetuates the cycle of violence,” the statement continued.
On Wednesday, Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty delivered a letter to DeSantis’ office asking to stay Dillbeck’s execution and “commune his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” It was signed by dozens of faith leaders, including Catholic deacons, sisters and pastors, as well as rabbis, a Buddhist group and various Jewish and Universalist Unitarian leaders.
“We firmly believe that Mr. Dillbeck should be separated from society and held accountable for his actions. We simply pray that in doing so, we do not lose sight of the humanity and compassion that our faiths teach us to honor,” the letter read.
Unless delayed, Dillbeck’s execution will be Florida’s first since June 2019 — the longest the state has gone without an execution since 1983. It is the third execution under DeSantis.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Florida has been one of the most active states in carrying out executions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.