Gov. Ron DeSantis this week raised the idea of changing state law to allow a jury to impose the death penalty without unanimous agreement, suggesting that perhaps only eight of the 12 jurors need to vote in favor.
DeSantis, in a speech to the Florida Association of Sheriffs on Monday, expressed his disappointment in the Parkland School shooting for life imprisonment. Three of the 12 jurors voted against the death penalty in that case. DeSantis said death penalty verdicts should not be “overturned” by a juror, suggesting a supermajority vote instead.
“Maybe eight out of 12 have to agree or something, but we can’t be in a situation where one person can derail this,” DeSantis said.
His comments were part of a debate about what lawmakers might consider in the next legislative session, which begins on March 7.
Currently, Alabama is the only state that allows non-collective jury sentences for the death penalty. It takes at least 10 out of 12 jurors to vote in favor of the death penalty, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Florida’s requirement to unanimously approve the death penalty is relatively recent. A 2016 US Supreme Court ruling, and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling, triggered Florida’s transition to a unanimous jury system. Previously, Florida only required a majority, and judges had the power to override a jury’s decision.
The US Supreme Court said that the ruling in the capital, Florida, gave a lot of powers to judges over juries. After that ruling, lawmakers in 2016 passed a bill requiring a 10-2 majority of the jury to impose the death penalty. But the state supreme court said it was against the state constitution because it was not unanimous. The following year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring unanimous jury recommendations.
That seemed to set the issue aside until 2020, when the Florida Supreme Court reversed its ruling four years ago and said consensus was not necessary. The justices wrote that they had misinterpreted an earlier US Supreme Court ruling. The court said the jury should be in unanimous agreement only that someone qualifies for the death penalty, not that they should be sentenced to death.
That left the door open for lawmakers to make changes again. So far, no bill has been introduced before this year’s legislative session.
Legislative leaders are open to change
In a statement, Senate President Kathleen Basidomo said she was disappointed with Parkland’s ruling and that she believes the case has raised public awareness of existing death penalty laws.
“I am open to reconsidering the requirement of a unanimous ruling, and I look forward to hearing the ideas of my colleagues and constituents to understand their views on changing our death penalty laws,” said Basidomo.
House Speaker Paul Renner did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. In a November podcast with City & State Florida, Renner discussed the Parkland shooting ruling, and said the House will look to see if a “more nuanced” approach to death penalty cases is appropriate.
“I think it should be an overwhelming vote for sure, but I don’t know it has to be a unanimous vote,” he said.
There are about 300 people in Florida who are on death row. On Monday, DeSantis signed the death warrant for a 59-year-old man accused of the 1990 murder. The execution, which is scheduled for February 23 and will use lethal injection, will be the first in Florida since 2019.
Florida has the highest number of executions in the United States, with 30 people slated for execution found wrongly convicted, according to the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to fighting wrongful convictions.
In 24 death sentence cases considered by the Death Penalty Information Center, 22 received one or more jury votes for life.
“In Florida, we’ve seen a lot of people get the death penalty who were innocent,” said former Democratic Senator Randolph Brassey, who sponsored the 2017 Senate bill to make the death penalty unanimous. “It shouldn’t be so easy to kill someone.”
DeSantis: Don’t favor offenders
DeSantis has spoken before about the idea of making changes to Florida’s death penalty laws. At a news conference in October in the days after the jury recommended Marjory Stoneman attacker Douglas Hay to life in prison, DeSantis said the system needed reforms to better serve victims and “not always bend backwards to try to do whatever we need to do for offenders.” .
Former House Speaker Chris Sprouls, who sponsored the House version of the 2017 bill to make the death penalty unanimous, said he pushed for the bill because of Supreme Court rulings, saying he feared that if the legislature did not act, some defendants would still be pending. Cases will be able to plead for life by claiming that there is no valid death penalty in the state.
“I think what we did was kind of stick our finger in the dam,” he said.
Sproles, a former attorney general, said the minimum death penalty is up to the legislature to decide. He said that a non-unanimous jury builds a “margin of error” for people who turn out to be a jury but refuse to carry out the death penalty, and noted that a death sentence is handed down only after all 12 jurors have deemed a person guilty beyond reason. doubt.
Death penalty juries across the country are already far more white and more men than society as a whole, said Dunham, of the Death Penalty Information Center. Who ends up on a jury in a death penalty case, he said, is skewed to exclude people who disagree with the death penalty in principle, which often includes women and blacks.
“There are obvious problems with the way Florida administers the death penalty,” Dunham said.
He said Florida has undermined other safeguards for people facing the death penalty, such as a state Supreme Court ruling against independent review of death penalty cases to ensure they are not disproportionately harsh.
If Florida were to lower the threshold the way DeSantis proposed, “you’re ensuring that innocent people will be executed,” Dunham said.