John Arthur Spenkelink (March 29, 1949 – May 25, 1979) was a convicted American murderer. He was executed under controversial circumstances in 1979, the first convicted criminal to be executed in Florida after capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, and the second (after Gary Gilmore) in the United States.
Spenkelink was a drifter who was convicted in California for armed robbery and had been sentenced to five years-to-life. He had just escaped from the Slack Canyon Conservation Camp when he shot and killed a small-time criminal named Joseph Szymankiewicz in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1973. He claimed that he acted in self-defense—that Szymankiewicz had stolen his money, forced him to play Russian roulette, and sexually assaulted him. However, evidence and witness testimony from a co-defendant indicated that Spenkelink left their shared motel room, returned with a gun, and shot Szymankiewicz in the back. He turned down a plea bargain to second-degree murder that would have resulted in a life sentence. In 1976 he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His co-defendant was acquitted.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court had banned the death penalty, ruling that it had been applied unfairly. Florida and other states rushed to rewrite less-arbitrary laws. Spenkelink would be the first man executed in Florida since the 1972 ruling.
Spenkelink appealed his sentence, but in 1977, Governor Reubin Askew of Florida signed Spenkelink's first death warrant. In 1979 Askew's successor, Governor Bob Graham, signed a second death warrant. Spenkelink continued to appeal, earning stays from both the U.S Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but both stays were overturned, meaning that Spenkelink would be the first man to suffer the death penalty involuntarily (Gilmore had insisted he wanted to die) since executions were resumed in the U.S. in 1976.
Spenkelink's case became a national cause célèbre, encompassing both the broader debate over the morality of the death penalty and the narrower question of whether the punishment fitted Spenkelink's crime. His cause was taken up by former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, actor Alan Alda, and singer Joan Baez, among many others. Also at issue was the assertion that capital punishment discriminated against the poor and underprivileged—Spenkelink often signed his prison correspondence with the epigram, “capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment.”
The execution was finally carried out on May 25, 1979, in "Old Sparky," the Florida State Prison electric chair. That morning, Doug Tracht, a popular Jacksonville disc jockey, aired a recording of sizzling bacon on his radio program and dedicated it to Spenkelink.
John Arthur Spenkelink is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
Shortly after Spenkelink's execution and burial, another Florida death row inmate alleged that prison officials had manhandled and assaulted Spenkelink during preparation for his execution. Several decisions lent credence to these allegations: corrections officials had obscured the death chamber's viewing window while Spenkelink was strapped to the electric chair, citing anonymity concerns; the county did not perform an autopsy on Spenkelink (in violation of state law) because the county coroner considered it a redundant and prohibitively expensive policy; and the prison superintendent had limited visits from family and clergy on Spenkelink's execution day, citing fear of a suicide attempt.
Governor Graham commissioned an investigation, which in September 1979 concluded that Spenkelink had been "taunted" and had loud exchanges with prison guards and staff immediately before his execution, but had not been physically abused. Florida corrections officials responded by allowing witnesses to see the complete execution process going forward. Florida's counties now perform autopsies on all executed inmates.
In spite of the state's investigation, a rumor began that Spenkelink had been murdered prior to his being brought into the death chamber. The rumor reached Spenkelink's mother Lois, who, after encouragement from a spiritual advisor, paid to have her son's body exhumed for a post-mortem examination. On March 6, 1981, Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi announced his finding that the cause of Spenkelink's death was the result of electrocution.
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