Florida will no longer require a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty under a measure signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a change made in response to outrage over jurors who last fall blocked the death penalty for convicted Parkland killer Nikolas Cruz, reported Politico.
DeSantis approved the bill in a private bill-signing ceremony held in his office with legislative leaders and the sponsors of the legislation.
“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,” DeSantis said in a statement. “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.”
Cruz killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School five years ago and eventually pleaded guilty to murder charges. But DeSantis called for changes to Florida’s death penalty law after three out of the 12 jurors deciding his fate recommended life in prison.
From now on, convicted murderers could receive the death penalty if eight out of the 12 jurors recommend it. It’s a lower threshold than any other states that actively carry out the death penalty. Alabama requires a jury vote of 10-2.
“This bill is about victims’ rights, plain and simple,” said Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina Montalto was killed by Cruz, in a statement. “It allows the victims of heinous crimes a chance to get justice and have the perpetrators punished to the full extent of the law.”
Florida’s death penalty process has undergone a flurry of litigation over the years. State legislators switched from a simple majority to a 10-2 jury requirement after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state’s process was unconstitutional. But then legislators changed the law to require a unanimous jury recommendation after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that it was required.
According to The New York Times, Nearly all of the 27 states that allow the death penalty require unanimous sentencing votes by juries. The new Florida threshold will be lower than the 10-to-2 majority required in Alabama. Indiana and Missouri allow judges to decide the sentence when jurors are divided.
At least 30 inmates who were sentenced to death in Florida have since been exonerated, more than in any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research organization that opposes capital punishment. More than 300 inmates remain on Florida’s death row.
But the state’s high court — which shifted rightward due to several appointments by DeSantis — retracted that decision four years later and said the previous decision was “wrong.”
While supporters of the bill insist the lower threshold will withstand constitutional muster, opponents counter that the new standard will likely be challenged in federal court.
The legislation, S.B, 450, was supported by both Democrats and Republicans, although most of the “no” votes were from Democrats.
“We are talking about the state injecting chemicals into a person’s body to take their life,” said Rep. Ashley Gantt, a Miami Democrat and an attorney. “And that demands the highest of the threshold of a unanimous jury verdict.”
The death penalty bill was just one of a series criminal justice bills that DeSantis called for ahead of this year’s session. DeSantis, who has made stops across the country to promote a new memoir ahead of an expected presidential run, has lashed out at blue states and “soft-on-crime” prosecutors operating in other parts of the country.
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