It's been 15 years since Florida executed someone from Duval County, but that's not for lack of trying. Duval, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, has sent 60 people to Death Row, the eighth-highest total in the U.S., and the most in Florida, despite having only about 6 percent of the state's population and 8 percent of its murders. No other Florida county even breaks the top 10.
"That is a strange coincidence," says Stephen Harper, a law professor at Florida International University in Miami and a death penalty expert. "The system has no control over which inmates the governor will select for the death penalty."
The last inmate from Duval County to die was Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis, electrocuted in 1999 for the savage 1982 slayings of Nancy Weiler, a pregnant Jacksonville woman, and her young daughters during a home-invasion robbery.
Since then, no inmate convicted and sentenced to die for a Duval County murder has been put to death, although 38 inmates from other counties have been.
Davis was also the final inmate to die in Florida's electric chair. This was a new Old Sparky, designed specifically to fit Davis' 350-pound girth. But his execution didn't go smoothly. Pictures of Davis' bloodied and bloated body circulated on the Internet after being included as evidence in a Florida Supreme Court ruling. After that debacle, the state performed only lethal injection for its executions.
Of the 82 prisoners executed since 1979, when Florida resumed capital punishment, only eight were from Duval County, and all gave up the ghost sitting in Old Sparky.
The DPIC says this decline is part of a trend, in which the death penalty is used less frequently, executions are more rare and the mood of the country is seemingly tilting against the death penalty. For instance, in 2013, Florida sent only 15 people to Death Row — only one was from Duval County — a noticeable drop. And a 2013 Gallup poll found public support for capital punishment at 60 percent, the lowest level in 40 years.
Still, Florida and Texas, the two states most bucking the downward trend, were responsible for 59 percent of the nation's 39 executions in 2013 — Texas had 16, Florida completed 7. That's only the second time in nearly two decades that there were fewer than 40 executions nationwide. (Florida has already executed one person in 2014, and there are two executions set for February.)
It's not clear why more inmates from Duval County haven't yet kept their date with the needle. In general, after all appeals are exhausted, it takes about 15 years from sentence to execution in Florida. Three Duval County inmates, however, have been there since the mid-'70s — coming up on four decades. (State court officials say they don't keep statistics on the number of overturned murder convictions.)
"Florida's death penalty administration has become a super-expensive, unnecessary government program with no effective accountability or budgetary oversight — a worst-case bureaucratic program that assumes the almighty power of deciding who lives and dies," says Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "Nowhere in our state is death sentencing more abused, politicized and unevenly applied than Duval County."
Since State Attorney Angela Corey took over as the state's top prosecutor in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties in 1999, she's sent 20 inmates to Death Row — and 13, or 65 percent, were black. (In fact, in 2012, the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which Corey represents, alone accounted for 6 percent of all the death sentences in the United States, despite having just 6 percent of the state's population and 8 percent of its murders.) Of those, 16 hailed from Duval County, and 13 of them were black.
The longest-serving inmate on Death Row from Duval County is Jacob Dougan, now 67. He's been there since 1974, for killing a white hitchhiker in hopes of starting a race war. Dougan remains on Death Row while prosecutors appeal a ruling by Duval Circuit Judge Jean M. Johnson, who vacated Dougan's sentence and ordered a new trial. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.
Tired of delays like these, last year the state Legislature passed a law, called the Timely Justice Act, designed to speed up executions. In keeping with the new law, in October, the Supreme Court gave Gov. Rick Scott a list of 132 inmates whose cases were "warrant-ready," meaning the inmates have completed their direct appeals and post-conviction pleadings in state court and habeas corpus filings in federal court. Thirteen of those are from Duval County, and Scott could sign their death warrants at any time.
That law, of course, is now being challenged in court. If the courts permit it to stay intact, the pace of executions will likely step up — but how much it quickens, and who goes when, is entirely at the governor's discretion.
In Florida, the killing process is, in the final analysis, arbitrary. o