John Spenkelink

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John Spenkelink
FDOC Mugshot
Born John Arthur Spenkelink
(1949-03-29)March 29, 1949
Le Mars, Iowa
Died May 25, 1979(1979-05-25) (aged 30)
Florida State Prison, Raiford, Florida
Criminal charge Murder
Criminal penalty Death
Criminal status Executed in the Electric chair

John Arthur Spenkelink (March 29, 1949 – May 25, 1979) was a convicted American murderer. He was executed under controversial circumstances in 1979, the first convict to be executed in Florida after capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, and the second (after Gary Gilmore) in the country.

Crime, legal controversy[edit]

A drifter who had served time in California for petty crimes, and had escaped from Slack Canyon Prison camp, Spenkelink shot and killed a fellow 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 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. In 1977 Governor Reubin Askew of Florida signed his first death warrant, but the Supreme Court stayed the execution pending consideration of 22 separate appeals. In 1979 Askew's successor, Bob Graham, signed a second death warrant. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's second stay was overturned by the full Court.

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.[1] 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.”[2])

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.[3][4]


The controversy did not end with Spenkelink's execution: When the blinds covering the windows of the execution chamber were opened to the witnesses, Spenkelink had already been strapped into the chair, gagged, and blindfolded. Since the witnesses had not seen the prisoner brought into the chamber, rumors later spread that he had fought the guards, that his neck had been broken in the altercation, and that he was dead before the execution took place. Spenkelink's corpse was eventually exhumed by a Los Angeles coroner, who determined that the cause of his death was in fact electrocution. To prevent similar future controversies, prison officials removed the window blinds to allow witnesses to view the entire execution procedure from beginning to end.[5] In addition, the Florida Legislature passed a law (since rescinded) requiring autopsies for all executed convicts.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Von Drehle, David. Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row. New York: Fawcett Crest (imprint of Ballantine Books), 1996. ISBN 0449225232 pp. 49-51
  2. ^ John Spenkelink: archive Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  3. ^ Michaud S, Aynesworth H (1999): The Only Living Witness. Penguin Putnam, ISBN 0-451-16372-9, p. 10.
  4. ^ "Florida Wields Death Law". The Daily Oklahoman. 26 August 1979. Retrieved 5 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Von Drehle, David. Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row. New York: Fawcett Crest (imprint of Ballantine Books), 1996. ISBN 0449225232 pp. 102-103
  6. ^ Von Drehle, David. Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row. New York: Fawcett Crest (imprint of Ballantine Books), 1996. ISBN 0449225232 p. 103

General references[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Gary Gilmore
People executed in US Succeeded by
Jesse Bishop