John Arthur Spenkelink (March 29, 1949 in Le Mars, Iowa, – May 25, 1979 in Starke, Florida) was the first person executed in Florida (and the second one nationwide) since the re-introduction of the death penalty in the United States in 1976. Unlike the first execution (that of Gary Gilmore in Utah), Spenkelink legally fought his execution until the very end. The last man executed in Florida had been in 1964, and the last execution nationwide had been in Colorado in 1967.
After serving in a California prison for petty crimes, he travelled to Florida with another prison inmate. He was condemned to death in 1973 for murdering a traveling companion (named Joseph J. Szymankiewicz) who, Spenkelink alleged, had offered him homosexual relations and then forced him to play Russian roulette in a Tallahassee, Florida, motel.
Spenkelink's case raised some controversy since he claimed that he shot his victim in self-defense. According to Spenkelink's attorney, there was a good chance the sentence would be commuted. Spenkelink had been offered a chance to admit to second-degree murder and to receive a life-in-prison sentence, but he refused to do so.
In 1977, Governor Reubin Askew of Florida signed his first death warrant, but the Supreme Court stayed the execution. In 1979, the new governor of Florida, Bob Graham, signed a second death warrant and, despite the temporary ruling of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, this was the final death warrant, since the full U.S. Supreme Court overturned Marshall's stay of execution.
Among those who were protesting against his execution outside gubernatorial mansion were for example former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, actor Alan Alda and singer Joan Baez.
After the execution, unfounded rumors spread that the fighting, shouting Spenkelink was dragged to the electric chair, gagged, beaten, and had his neck broken. The rumors caused Spenkelink's body to be exhumed for an autopsy, and the State of Florida further ruled that autopsies be performed on all executed inmates. Some witnesses believe that Spenkelink was already dead when placed in the electric chair. In David Von Brehle's book on the Florida death row system, Among the Lowest of the Dead, the author presented several interviews with eyewitnesses who saw Spenkelink alive in the electric chair before his death. According to these witnesses, Spenkelink did not resist being put into the electric chair by the officers in charge.
In 1989, Ted Bundy occupied the same cell at Florida State Prison that Spenkelink had occupied.