Florida executes Jerry Correll for 4 killings in 1985

Jerry Correll was convicted and sentenced to death for fatally stabbing his 5-year-old daughter, ex-wife and ex-wife’s mother and sister in Orlando in 1985.
Jerry Correll was convicted and sentenced to death for fatally stabbing his 5-year-old daughter, ex-wife and ex-wife’s mother and sister in Orlando in 1985. Florida Dept. of Corrections

— At 7:36 p.m. Thursday, decades after he brutally stabbed four people to death — including his 5-year-old daughter — Jerry Correll’s body lay lifeless in the death chamber at Florida State Prison.

Just 10 minutes earlier, Correll — dressed in all white under a white sheet — turned down a final statement. And an executioner injected him with three chemicals. The first sedated him, the next paralyzed him and the third stopped his heart.

With that came an end to one of the most protracted cases on Florida’s crowded death row. Thirty years after he stabbed and killed his daughter, his ex-wife, Susan, and her mother and sister in Orlando, Correll himself was dead at 59.

The execution occurred after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected without comment Correll’s request for a stay at 6:40 p.m., 40 minutes after the execution was scheduled.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying Correll’s execution should be delayed while the court decides whether Florida’s capital punishment system is constitutional. At issue: In Florida, it takes only a majority of the jury — not a unanimous one as in other states —to recommend the death penalty. Even then, the judge has a final say.

Breyer also said keeping a prisoner on death row for 30 years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Correll is the first person to be executed since January in the small, white death chamber. His death was put off in February by the Florida Supreme Court while federal justices considered a case that could rule the state’s lethal injections unconstitutional.

That case surrounded midazolam, a highly controversial drug used in lethal injections in just a few states, including Florida. Its purpose is to sedate the inmate, although in some cases it has not worked properly, causing inmates to clench their fists in a sign of pain during an execution.

Cries could be heard from the witnesses as Correll's death was underway. It took about 10 minutes for the midazolam to kill him.

Correll’s execution is the 22nd to take place in the death chamber at Florida State Prison since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, more than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1976. Jeb Bush ordered 21 in his eight years in office and Charlie Crist ordered just five.

“It’s his solemn duty to uphold the law and his foremost concern is always for the victims and their families,” said Jackie Schutz, Scott’s spokeswoman.

Family members of the victims — his daughter named Tuesday, his ex-wife Susan Correll, her mother Mary Lou Hines, and her sister Marybeth Jones — were present, as were Correll’s lawyers and a member of clergy.

“The consequences of [Correll’s] actions should be no less than death itself,” the family of the victims said in a written statement after the execution. “It has taken a long time for his punishment to be fulfilled, but we have chosen to use that time to heal and move forward.”

The family of death row inmates aren’t allowed to witness executions. Correll spoke with his daughter on the phone Thursday morning, however, and she and other family members visited him last week, Department of Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

On Thursday, Correll had a two-hour meeting with Deacon Jason Roy, a Catholic chaplain who serves death row inmates. Around 10 a.m., he ate his last meal: a cheeseburger, french fries and a Coke.

“His general demeanor has been calm and in good spirits today,” Lewis said.

Inside the chamber on Thursday evening, the team responsible for carrying out Scott’s death warrant were connected to the governor and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi via phone. They were able to ensure no last-minute decisions required the execution to be put off, Schutz said.

The Florida Supreme Court already delayed Correll’s execution in February, pending a federal death penalty case, but they declined to do so again. Correll’s lawyers made an unsuccessful bid to the U.S. Supreme Court to demand the state hold off while the Court reviews how Florida sentences people to death, in a case called Hurst v. Florida.

Bondi opposed any delay, filing documents with the court arguing that the state is on solid legal ground. On Tuesday, she said that “the courts have ruled in our favor in the past on this very issue” and called Correll’s crime a “horrible, horrible murder.”

“We’re not going to let anybody be executed that we feel isn’t warranted by our laws,” Bondi said.

With the U.S. Supreme Court planning to rule on Florida’s death penalty in the Hurst case — Florida is the only state where a judge issues a death sentence based on the recommendation of a jury that need not be unanimous — critics said now was not the time to move ahead with an execution. Because Correll’s death sentence could get sent back to a jury if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against the state, DeLiberato said she was surprised the execution wasn’t delayed by a lower court.

“It certainly was a surprise to us,” she said. “We certainly thought they would recognize the significance of the Hurst case and how it potentially affects Florida’s death penalty.”

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.