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FL Senate on death penalty: 8 jurors, not 12, would be required to put someone to death


FL Senate on death penalty: 8 jurors, not 12, would be required to put someone to death

Mar 30, 2023 | 5:30 pm ET
By Mitch Perry
FL Senate on death penalty: 8 jurors, not 12, would be required to put someone to death
An execution chamber in Florida (photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Florida Senate passed legislation Thursday to get rid of a requirement for a unanimous jury recommendation before a death penalty can be imposed. The measure would require just eight jurors, not 12, to support a penalty of death.

The vote was 29-10, though it was not along strict party lines.

Lauren Book, the Senate Democrat Leader, and Linda Stewart, a Democrat from Orlando, joined 27 Republicans in supporting the bill. Republican Erin Grall, representing South Central counties and Ileana Garcia, of Miami-Dade, joined eight Democrats in opposing it.

Lawmakers in the state House would need to approve the legislation, as well as Gov. Ron DeSantis.

If ultimately enacted, Florida would join Alabama as the only two states in the nation that would not require a unanimous jury verdict for the death penalty. However, Alabama’s measure requires 10 jurors to vote for the death penalty.

The impetus to change the structure came after a South Florida jury opted last November not to impose the death penalty for mass shooter Nikolas Cruz – who killed 17 students and staff at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. He instead received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“What that verdict did do was expose a flaw in the current system,” said Central Florida Republican Blaise Ingoglia, the bill sponsor. “That verdict shocked the conscious. Not only of the people of Parkland, not only the people in Florida, but people across the United states of America.”

Ingoglia went on to say that “if a monster like that who commits heinous crimes like that, does not deserve and get the death penalty, then what do we have a death penalty for?”

Gov. Ron DeSantis called for the Legislature to make the change while speaking at the Florida Sheriffs Association Winter Conference in St. Johns County in January.

But Miami-Dade/Broward Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo said on the Senate floor Thursday that while he believed that Cruz “deserves to die,” he believed that the Senate shouldn’t just immediately react to one particular horrific case. He also said that he and perhaps other senators would support the proposal if it required 10 jurors to impose a death penalty, but that eight jurors would be too low.

Critics have noted that Florida has historically had a turbulent history with the use of capital punishment. The state has had 30 exonerations from death row, the most in the nation, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an organization that opposes the death penalty, has noted that the vast majority of those exonerees were either sentenced to death by non-unanimous juries or sentenced to death by judges who rejected a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and imposed death instead.

The measure also says that if the jury recommends a death sentence, the judge does have the option of imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Florida previously allowed just a simple majority of 12 jurors to vote to execute someone on death row as recently as 2016. At that time, Florida was one of only three states that allowed a simple majority of jurors to recommend execution. That changed when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of Florida’s law in 2016.

The Legislature then changed the law to require a 10-2 majority to recommend the death penalty, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled later in 2016 that such a measure would also violate the state’s Constitution. The Legislature then came back in 2017 and voted to require a unanimous jury decision to invoke a death sentence on an inmate.