On death penalty, DeSantis trails GOP rivals, predecessors and even “Chain Gang Charlie”

by | Sep 1, 2022

  • Since taking office, DeSantis has signed only three death warrants, while presiding over just 2 executions in that same span
  • DeSantis’s total is lower than any first-term governor since Bob Graham took office in 1979
  • Charlie Crist, DeSantis’s opponent in November, presided over five executions during his only term as governor, three more than DeSantis
  • Potential GOP presidential rival Greg Abbott has presided over at least 55 executions during his time as Texas governor
  • A series of legal challenges complicated Florida’s death penalty process but DeSantis has not pressed for more executions

Since taking office in January 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed the death warrants of just three condemned prisoners, two of which have since been executed, while one death warrant is still pending. That total is the lowest of any Florida governor since Democrat Bob Graham, who presided over just a single execution in his first term. But it’s also three fewer than his Democratic gubernatorial opponent Charlie Crist, who presided over five executions as a Republican during his one term as governor.

DeSantis, who presents himself as a ‘law and order’ leader, lags far behind his most recent Republican predecessors. By comparison, Jeb Bush presided over 11 executions in his first term, while Rick Scott oversaw  20. And, unlike Bob Graham, who in the late 1970’s had to wait for the first condemned prisoners to complete the legal appeals process before signing a death warrant, there are now hundreds of people on Florida’s death row awaiting execution, including 15 who have languished there for more than 40 years.

Notably, one of DeSantis’s hypothetical 2024 GOP rivals, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, has presided over at least 55 executions during his terms in office.

Explanations for DeSantis’s inaction on the death penalty remain elusive. While a series of legal flip-flops, high court rulings, and the special circumstances of some cases has made it more difficult to identify those that are “execution ready,” there are nevertheless some cases that have exhausted appeals that could move forward. And even though DeSantis does have one death warrant still pending, at least one Florida governor, Rick Scott, didn’t always wait for one execution to be complete before signing another death warrant. Twice during his two terms as governor, Scott presided over executions just two weeks apart.

Still, a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hurst v. Florida, presents a much different death row for DeSantis than for Scott. The ruling, handed down while Scott was still governor, threw Florida’s death row into chaos when the court voted 8-1 to find Florida’s death sentence scheme in violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by jury.

“The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the majority. The ruling ultimately invalidated the death sentences of more than 100 condemned prisoners on Florida’s death row, requiring each of them to go through a new sentencing phase.

After the ruling, Scott waited more than a year to sort the legal situation out before resuming executions on his watch, and the pace of executions also slowed. Over the last two years of his final term, Scott presided over just five executions.

In the meantime, some of the cases impacted by the ruling – all of them non-unanimous jury recommendations of death after 2002 – have worked their way through the system once more. Several of those cases have resulted in new death sentences, but others, including convicted murderer Timothy Hurst, whose case resulted in the ruling, have since been given lesser sentences after prosecutors failed to secure unanimous sentence recommendations from a jury.

Meanwhile, still other condemned prisoners are waiting for newly-granted DNA tests on crime scene evidence. The technology wasn’t available at the time of trial, but defense attorneys and sympathetic prosecutors and courts have aggressively pushed for and allowed the tests, throwing numerous death row cases into a holding pattern while labs carry out the tests.

Even so, that still leaves a number of condemned prisoners – and the families of their victims – waiting on justice. But that kind of justice requires Florida’s governor to sign a death warrant.

DeSantis may have other valid legal explanations for his ongoing inaction, but if so, he isn’t talking about it. His campaign referred all inquiries on the matter to the Executive Office of the Governor, where after 24 hours, spokesman Bryan Griffin finally said that he wouldn’t be able to provide a response to The Capitolist before a Thursday morning publication deadline.

Personal reasons could also be a factor in DeSantis’s decision not to aggressively pursue executions. As governor, the Florida Constitution gives him sole discretion to decide when, or even if, to sign a death warrant. And as a pro-life Catholic, DeSantis may harbor doubts about the morality of capital punishment. Regardless of the reasons, his inaction could leave him open to criticism for being soft on violent criminals and insensitive to the families of a convicted murderer’s victims.

DeSantis’s general election opponent, Crist, can, at least in theory, claim he’s done more for violent crime victims than DeSantis. In fact, at one time, Crist recognized the importance of making sure voters knew he was “tough on crime.” In the mid-1990’s, he earned notoriety as “Chain Gang Charlie” for pushing the idea of implementing chain gangs in Florida. He even related a boyhood story about watching a mostly-black Alabama prison chain gang, shackled and working in the hot sun.

“I see justice,” Crist is quoted in the Palm Beach Post, talking about the men.

Last year, Crist was asked by a reporter if he supported the death penalty for someone like Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (since then, Cruz has been sentenced to multiple life sentences, rather than death, as part of his plea). Crist said he would support capital punishment in cases that could be considered egregious, also stating that he would be against the abolishment of the death penalty from Florida’s judicial system.

“In cases like these, I believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment. But I don’t take that position lightly,” Crist said at the time. “As Governor, one of the toughest parts of the job was signing a death warrant. It is a punishment that should be used sparingly, reserved for the most heinous crimes.”

Today, though, like DeSantis, Crist doesn’t have much to say about his death penalty record. Multiple requests for comment for this story went unanswered.


  1. Soothsayer

    DeSantis is a populist, he’s not conservative.

    • dmmorrison

      A semi-fascist, actually.

  2. Naked Truth

    Imagine Charlie Crist being tougher on crime than Ron DeSantis. Yet that’s where we are.

  3. 🌈 Rainbow Warrior 🌈

    So Rick Scott was a killing machine

  4. dmmorrison

    Maybe DeSantis realizes that he, too, may someday get arrested.

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