A serial killer is set to become the 99th person to be executed in Florida since 1979, when the state carried out its first execution three years after the death penalty was reinstated.
Gary Ray Bowles is scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, near Starke, for the murder of Walter Hinton -- the last of six men whom he confessed to killing over an eight-month period.
Hinton was killed in Jacksonville Beach. The four other victims were slain in Nassau County, Florida; Atlanta; Savannah, Georgia ; and Rockville, Maryland. Bowles met his victims in gay bars, and in each case the victims were found with objects shoved down their throats: a towel, toilet paper, dirt and leaves, and in one case a sex toy, prosecutors have said.
Bowles later confessed to all six killings, but has been tried, convicted and sentenced to death only for Hinton's. He pleaded guilty to the other two Florida slayings and was sentenced to life without parole for each. Authorities in Georgia and Maryland planned to proceed with prosecutions in those states if he wasn't convicted in Florida.
"Gary Ray Bowles, the murders he committed, it seemed as if he took pleasure or enjoyed the brutality of it. The victims were badly beaten and strangled, and then he would have what we call a signature card. He would stuff something down their mouths," said Bernie de la Rionda, the former state prosecutor who obtained a conviction and death sentence for Bowles in 1996 and will be a witness to the execution Thursday. "People were terrified of what was going on. He was wanted. He was on 'America's Most Wanted' and on the FBI's top 10."
Due to the violent nature of the killings, Bowles fits the criteria set by Gov. Ron DeSantis for using the ultimate penalty.
“I’m supportive of it for the most serious offenses,” DeSantis said in March.
Unless stopped, Bowles' death Thursday evening will be the state’s 99th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. On May 25, 1979, Florida carried out its first execution since reinstatement, ending a 15-year hiatus on executions. Public protest over executions has quieted considerably since they resumed.
“There are specific concerns with this case,” said Ingrid Delgado, with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has called on the governor to stop the execution, arguing Florida is safe with Bowles, 57, behind bars and testimony shows he was abused as a child.
“He suffered extreme violence at the hands of his stepfathers,” Delgado said. "When he escaped that violence, he was a victim of homelessness and child prostitution, and we know that through neural scientific research that adverse traumatic experiences do affect future behavior.”
While it has taken more than 40 years since the death penalty was reinstated for the state to get to its 99th execution, it executed nearly twice as many people -- 196 -- between 1924 and 1964, when it went on a hiatus.
In 1979, the Capitol was awash in protests for over a week pending the first execution in a decade and a half. But unlike 40 years ago, fewer than a dozen are expected to protest Thursday's execution and pay their respects to the victims when they gather in the Capitol rotunda.
The News Service of Florida reported the second execution ordered by DeSantis will keep First Ladu Casey DeSantis from a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Tampa, as the Women For Trump campaign rally is being held shortly after the scheduled 6 p.m. execution of Bowles.
"The day of an execution is somber, including out of respect for the victims and for that reason First Lady Casey DeSantis will not attend any public events,” a spokeswoman for the governor said.