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   Saturday, May 22
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Fla. Marks 25 Years Since Death Penalty's Return With Execution

Published: May 22, 2004


STARKE, Fla. (AP) - Twenty-five years after convicted killer John Spenkelink died in the electric chair, Florida will mark the anniversary by preparing for the death of an inmate who claims he killed in prison so he could be executed.

It was an unsure time in the late 1970s when Florida prepared to carry out the first involuntary execution of a convicted felon since a U.S. Supreme Court ban on capital punishment was overturned. Florida did not have an executioner. It had not used the electric chair in 15 years. It had no written procedures on how to conduct an execution.

Despite those problems, on May 25, 1979, Spenkelink was put to death for the 1973 slaying of Joseph Szymankiewicz in a Tallahassee motel room. Szymankiewicz had been shot twice and beaten in the head after Spenkelink said the man forced him at gunpoint to commit a homosexual act.

Since executions resumed, 910 people have been executed in the United States, including 58 in Florida, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

In Florida, serial killers Ted Bundy and Gerald Stano, "black widow" killer Judy Buenoano and death row sage Willie Darden were among the 44 inmates strapped in the same three-legged oaken electric chair known as "Old Sparky." Another 14, including Aileen Wuornos, one of the few female serial killers, have died by injection. In that same quarter century, Florida also leads the nation in the number of inmates freed from death row with 25.

On the 25th anniversary of Spenkelink's death, the state is preparing to execute John Blackwelder, a 49-year-old convicted child molester who originally was sentenced to life in prison. That the execution is set to fall on the death penalty anniversary is a coincidence, state prison officials say.

Blackwelder, formerly of Fort Pierce, told the Florida Supreme Court that he strangled convicted killer Raymond Wigley, in May 2000 at Union Correctional Institution so he would get the death penalty.

"I made it clear, I want off this world. I can't kill myself. I'm not suicidal. But I sure can make it hard for everybody else," said Blackwelder, who has dropped all his appeals and is seeking execution.

Six of the last 10 inmates executed in Florida have dropped their appeals and asked to die. Abe Bonowitz, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, calls the actions of Blackwelder "governor-assisted suicide."

Unless he receives a last-minute stay, Blackwelder is scheduled to die at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Unlike Blackwelder, the 30-year-old Spenkelink fought his execution. His appeal made five trips to the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Kendall, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represented Spenkelink, thought his client had a good chance to avoid execution.

"We believed this was an excellent case for a commutation of sentence," Kendall said in a telephone interview. "Everyone expected something to happen so John Spenkelink would not be executed."

Prior to trial, Spenkelink rejected an offer to plead guilty to second-degree murder and avoid the death penalty.

"He felt it was not murder, but self-defense," Kendall recalled.

At Spenkelink's clemency hearing a month before his execution, chief prosecutor Anthony Guarisco disputed the self-defense theory, and was quoted in David Von Drehle's book, "Among the Lowest of the Dead," saying, "So what we have is an individual sneaking up on the victim, who is asleep, and shooting him. Shooting him in the back of the head! Shooting him in the back! Bashing in his head with some unknown instrument! So this is really not a case of self-defense!"

Michael Mello, a professor at the Vermont Law School, who worked on the cases of Bundy and Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, said Spenkelink's case helped establish the procedures used for post-conviction appeals in capital cases.

"For better or worse, it became the template of what came afterwards," Mello said.

After the Supreme Court blocked executions nationwide in 1972, Florida was the first to draft a new state law. It was declared constitutional in 1976. The following year, Gov. Reubin Askew signed Spenkelink's first death warrant, but courts stayed the execution.

Nearly two years later, Gov. Bob Graham - who is now a U.S. senator - signed the warrant that would end Spenkelink's life. Demonstrators protested outside the governor's mansion beating a drum and then filled the lobby of Graham's office the next day.

"What a nightmare that was," said Jim Smith, who was Florida attorney general at the time. "We were doing what we had to do to make sure that the execution occurred. ... This was the law of the state and it was my job to see that it was carried out."

Both David Brierton, who was Florida State Prison superintendent at the time, and Richard Dugger, the assistant superintendent who went on to become state corrections secretary, declined to be interviewed for this report.

Brierton was criticized for his plans to keep the blinds drawn in the execution chamber until Spenkelink was strapped in. Brierton hoped to prevent a circus-like atmosphere at the prison like that when Gary Gilmore asked to be executed before Utah's firing squad in 1977.

Instead, the closed blinds led to accusations that Spenkelink had been mistreated and prevented from making a last statement. An investigation found no evidence he had been mistreated.

Brierton said earlier he had two fears - the chair wouldn't work or the governor would call five minutes after it was over and say there was a stay.

But there would be no stay. After being served two shots of Jack Daniels by Dugger, Spenkelink was put to death.

Andy Johnson, then a state representative from Jacksonville, witnessed the execution.

"Not a pretty sight. I had nightmares for years," he said in an e-mail response to questions from The Associated Press.

Johnson, who now hosts a radio talk show in Jacksonville, said he believed the execution "was a sad mistake. Spenkelink had killed in self-defense."

"I do support the death penalty as a matter of justice, and, frankly, revenge, if only we could do a better job of being fair, precise and accurate, and if the death penalty could be applied without regard for one's economic status," Johnson said.

In the 25 years since Spenkelink's death, Florida has seen the electric chair malfunction twice, with flames leaping from the heads of Pedro Medina and Jesse Tafero. The execution of Allen "Tiny" Davis on July 8, 1999, marked the end of the chair after pictures of his bloody face appeared on the Internet. The Florida Legislature changed the method of execution to injection in 2000.

While awaiting execution, Spenkelink composed his own epitaph.

"Man is what he chooses to become. He chooses that for himself."


On the Net:

Florida Department of Corrections:

Death Penalty Information Center:

AP-ES-05-22-04 1017EDT

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