Florida could end unanimous jury requirement for executions

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature proposed legislation that would make it easier to send convicts to death row by eliminating a unanimous jury requirement in sentencing the death penalty — a response to the anger of the victims’ families following a verdict that a school shooter before execution.

The proposal comes after a 9-3 split jury spared Nikolas Cruz, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gunman, in November from the death penalty for killing 17 people at the school in 2018. The Parkland school gunner received a life sentence instead.

Cruz’s decision has outraged many and is likely the catalyst for Florida’s move to drop its unanimous demand for the death penalty.

Republican lawmakers, at the governor’s urging, introduced legislation allowing juries to choose the death penalty with only eight of the 12 jurors, making Florida the only state to use that standard.

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Only three of the 27 states that impose the death penalty do not require unanimity. Alabama allows a 10-2 decision and Missouri and Indiana let a judge decide when there is a split jury.

Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the massacre, said changing the requirement from unanimity to 8-4 would “prevent an activist jury from denying justice to victims’ families.”

“The people who are subject to the death penalty are already convicted murderers, they are not people taken off the streets,” Montalto said.

DeSantis, a Republican who is expected to bid for the 2024 White House in late spring or early summer, has not signed death sentences to the same degree as his predecessors, but said Cruz deserved the death penalty and he would have Cruz executed hastened if he had had the chance.

With the Florida legislature approaching, DeSantis is pleading for the change as part of a larger criminal justice bill described by the governor as a counterpoint to the “soft crime” policies in the Democrat-led states.

“I do not believe that justice has been served in this case. If you want capital, you have to use it for the worst of the worst crimes,” DeSantis said of the Cruz case, adding that there should be “a large majority” of the jury for a death sentence.

DeSantis, who has addressed issues that resonate with the conservative voters who typically decide GOP primary contests, has emerged as a fierce opponent of so-called “wake up” policies on race, gender and public health and as a staunch supporter of Law and Order exposed crime-fighting policies. He has also floated the idea of ​​exploring ways to introduce the death penalty for those convicted of sexually assaulting children.

Republican Legislative leaders in the GOP-dominated Statehouse appear receptive to removing the unanimity requirement for capital juries and tend to carry out the governor’s agenda. The bills tabled by Republicans in the House and Senate are scheduled to begin consideration in Florida at the start of the March legislature.

Florida had not required unanimity on the death penalty for decades and allowed a judge to impose the death penalty as long as a jury majority was in favor of the sentence. But in 2016, the US Supreme Court overturned the state law, saying it gave judges too much discretion.

The state legislature then passed a bill that required a 10-2 jury recommendation, but the state Supreme Court said such recommendations should be unanimous, leading lawmakers in 2017 to require a unanimous jury.

Three years later, the state Supreme Court, with new conservative attorneys appointed by DeSantis, overturned its earlier decision, ruling that a death recommendation need not be unanimous. Florida’s unanimity standard remained untouched, although there was no overwhelming desire to change state law.

Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said she was willing to reconsider Florida’s requirement for a unanimous verdict following Cruz’s decision and the state Supreme Court’s ruling. She said she shared the shock that many felt at the Cruz verdict.

“The expressions on the faces of the victims’ families were heartbreaking. In my view, the case raises a number of issues related to Florida’s felony sentencing laws, and I understand that many Florida residents feel that justice has been denied,” she said in a statement.

A database on the Anti-Execution Death Penalty Information Center website shows that since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s, 1,558 people have been executed, including 99 in Florida. National support for the death penalty has declined in recent decades, with most polls showing that between 50% and 60% of people now support the death penalty.

President Joe Biden campaigned to abolish the death penalty but took no major action to end the practice. The US Department of Justice is still pushing for the death penalty in certain cases, but has a moratorium in place that makes federal executions unlikely.

The imposition of a death sentence in Florida is a two-step process.

First, prosecutors must, by a unanimous vote, prove beyond a reasonable doubt at least one of 16 aggravating factors under Florida law. These include the assassination of a law enforcement officer or government official; killings that are particularly heinous, cruel, or gruesome; the killing of a child under the age of 12; and murders that are cold, calculated, and premeditated, or committed in the course of an act that posed a great risk of death to many people.

The change would affect step two: Under the current law, the jury must also unanimously agree that the aggravating factors “outweigh” any mitigating factors the defense might offer, such as sanity, intellect, or upbringing of the killer. The proposals would change that burden to eight out of 12 jurors.

Richard Dieter, interim executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said it was understandable that people would be upset about Cruz’s conviction, but he objected to the possible reversal of the jury’s unanimity standard based on the case.

“It’s a big deal to go back to something as fundamental as our jury system in the country. It’s not just about going from 9-3 to 10-2, it might not be a big deal, but getting rid of unanimity, I think that change should be approached very carefully,” he said. “And in the sense that this is happening in response to a case, this is concerning.”

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

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