At 10:09 a.m. this morning in Starke Prison, 46-year-old Ernest Dobbert threw a wink to his minister and was electrocuted for torturing his nine-year-old daughter to death.
The gist of the offense is described by the Gainesville Sun:
He was a child abuser, dating back to 1969. With his wife in prison for kiting paper, his four children obviously got on his nerves. His daughter, age 9, he tortured by beating with boards and belts, by kicking, by poking in her eyes, and by holding her head underwater in the toilet. He celebrated New Year’s Eve of 1971 by dressing her poor abused body in the finest garb on hand, placing it in a garbage bag and concealing it in the attic.
No chauvinist, he. Within weeks, he had done much the same with his son, aged 7. With the help of another terrorized son, age 12, he buried them both out in the scrub somewhere, with their bodies not yet found.
An unsympathetic character deservedly forgotten a quarter-century later, Dobbert interestingly illustrates some of the wide legal and ethical gray area in the real-life application of the death penalty for the many prisoners who are guilty yet not the like of Ted Bundy.
The Sun editorial cited urges Dobbert’s commitment to a mental institution on the nicely circular grounds that “no person is truly sane who tortures — much less kills — the fruit of his own loins.” This might bespeak an impoverished appreciation of human psychology’s potential.
More legally serious is the matter of intent and premeditation, ambiguous here as it so frequently is in life. Dobbert was convicted of only second-degree murder for killing his son; for slaying his daughter, the jury convicted him of capital murder but recommended only a life sentence, unsure of his degree of calculation.
But Ernest Dobbert is on this blog because Florida law allowed a judge to overrule the jury’s recommendation, opining,
this murder of a helpless, defenseless and innocent child is the most cruel, atrocious and heinous crime I have ever personally known of — and it is deserving of no sentence but death.
Maybe so … maybe no. In a 2000 paper* that undoubtedly plays better for an academic audience than a popular one, death penalty expert (and opponent) Michael Radelet points out that if one does suppose Dobbert’s intent to be less than fully formed, a case like his could be held to constitute a species of “wrongful execution” notwithstanding his guilt for the crime.**
The cases of those wrongly sentenced to death and who were totally uninvolved in the crime constitute only one type of miscarriage of justice. Another (and more frequent) blunder arises in the cases of the condemned who, with a more perfect justice system, would have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter, making them innocent of first degree murder. For example, consider the case of Ernest Dobbert, executed in Florida in 1984 for killing his daughter. The key witness at trial was Dobbert’s 13-year-old son, who testified that he saw his father kick the victim (this testimony was later recanted). In a dissent from the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari written just hours before Dobbert’s execution, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that while there was no question that Dobbert abused his children, there was substantial doubt about the existence of sufficient premeditation to sustain the conviction for first-degree murder. “That may well make Dobbert guilty of second-degree murder in Florida, but it cannot make him guilty of first-degree murder there. Nor can it subject him to the death penalty in that State” (Dobbert v. Wainwright, 468 U.S. 1231, 1246 (1984)). If Justice Marshall’s assessment was correct, then Dobbert was not guilty of a capital offense, and—in this qualified sense—Florida executed an innocent man.
For Justice Marshall, of course, all executions are wrongful.
Florida Governor Bob Graham agreed.
Ernest Dobbert has been executed because of his brutal actions toward his own children. I hope that this indication of the seriousness of child abuse will be an example of the value which the people of Florida place upon the lives of infants and young people in our state, and a measure of the lengths the people of Florida are prepared to go to prevent and punish such crimes.
* “The Changing Nature of Death Penalty Debates,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 26, August 2000.
** Fellow anti-death penalty academic Hugo Bedau on people whose murders are “arguably not … capital murder”:
We rarely think about this category when discussing innocence and the death penalty, but it is relevant and extremely important. The problem has been with us for at least two centuries, ever since the invention of the distinction between first-degree (capital) murder and second-degree (noncapital) murder.