- Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that reduces the number of jurors needed for the death penalty from a unanimous decision to a supermajority of eight out of twelve.
- The new legislation declares that if fewer than eight jurors vote for the death penalty, the jury’s sentencing recommendation must be for life without the possibility of parole, and the court is bound by that recommendation.
- Florida becomes the fourth state to not require jury unanimity in death penalty cases, joining Alabama, Missouri, and Indiana.
- The legislation comes after the governor expressed disappointment in the life imprisonment verdict for Nikolas Cruz, who in 2018 murdered 17 people during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a piece of legislation on Thursday to reform Florida’s death penalty statutes. A key provision reduces the number of jurors required for the death penalty from a unanimous decision to a supermajority of eight out of twelve.
Taking effect immediately, the measure also declares that if fewer than eight jurors vote to recommend the death penalty, the jury’s sentencing recommendation must be for life without the possibility of parole, and the court is bound by that recommendation.
Moreover, the bill specifies that the death penalty may only be imposed if the jury unanimously finds at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. With the bill’s adoption, Florida becomes the fourth state to not require jury unanimity in death penalty cases, joining Alabama, which allows a ten to two decision, and Missouri and Indiana, which allows a judge to decide when there is a divided jury.
“Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence,” said DeSantis. “I’m proud to sign legislation that will prevent families from having to endure what the Parkland families have and ensure proper justice will be served in the state of Florida.”
DeSantis and other GOP leaders took on capital punishment reform as a legislative priority after Nikolas Cruz, who in 2018 murdered 17 people during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, was sentenced to life in prison rather than the death penalty.
Following the jury’s decision DeSantis said he was “very disappointed” after the jury rejected the death penalty. During the trial, Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
“That is a case where you’re massacring those students with premeditation and utter disregard for basic humanity … you deserve the death penalty,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Cape Coral. “You know, the way they used to do this, he would have been executed in six months. He’s guilty. Everybody knew that from the beginning. And yet, it takes years and years in this legal system. That is not serving the interest of victims.”
The administering of capital punishment has been subjected to a series of legal challenges in Florida in the past decade, with Supreme Court rulings hampering the state’s ability to issue death penalty sentences. Subsequently, DeSantis has significantly lagged in authorized executions in comparison to his Republican predecessors.
In 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Hurst v. Florida that found Florida’s death penalty sentencing process unconstitutional. The Court ruled that Florida’s system, which allowed judges to override a jury’s recommendation of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty, violated the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a trial by jury. As a result, Florida’s legislature revised the state’s death penalty sentencing process, requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for a death sentence.
Since the Hurst decision, there have been ongoing legal challenges to the use of the death penalty in Florida. As of 2021, the state of Florida has executed 99 individuals since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. However, the use of the death penalty in the state has declined in recent years, with fewer death sentences being handed down and executed.