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Outrage over Parkland trial leads Florida to soften unanimous jury requirement for death penalty

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)

Eradication of the unanimous-jury requirement for executions in Florida is a virtual certainty now that a bill allowing eight out of 12 jurors vote to impose a death sentence heads to Governor Ron DeSantis for signing.

The Florida Senate passed SB 450 on Thursday with a 29-10 vote that fell mostly along party lines.

The legislative change was largely a reaction to the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people.

To DeSantis’ chagrin, Cruz was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“One juror should not be able to veto that,” DeSantis, a Republican, said during a news conference about Cruz’s narrow avoidance of the death penalty. “I don’t think justice was served.”

In January, Rep. Berny Jacques (R-Seminole) and Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill) filed identical bills to eliminate the requirement that juries must vote unanimously before a death sentence is imposed.

The potential change to the unanimity requirement comes as Florida Republicans are also attempting to widen the scope of the death penalty’s applicability. Earlier in March, Sunshine State legislators introduced a bill that would permit not just murderers — as is currently the case — but also child rapists to be put to death for their crimes.

Changes to death penalty procedures are becoming something of a current trend: Idaho lawmakers recently opted to revive firing squads for executions that could not be carried out by lethal injection.

The Florida bill nixing the unanimous jury requirement conflicts directly with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, but the bill’s text declares that precedent to be “wrongly decided.”

As DeSantis prepares to sign the unanimous jury change into law, U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is advocating for an “automatic death penalty for school shooters.”

Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old shooting victim of Jaime Guttenberg, responded to Scott’s suggestion in a series of tweets.

“As my daughter was murdered in the Parkland Florida school shooting while you were Governor, I am uniquely qualified to respond to your tweet,” Guttenberg began. “While I wanted the death penalty, it was as punishment. It absolutely would not have been a deterrent.”

Guttenberg slammed Scott for “trying to distract from the gun and failures on guns,” and said that Scott’s “useless involvement” should be cause “a death sentence to [his] political career.”

After Cruz’s sentencing, Guttenberg called the shooter a “monster,” and said that, “in prison, I hope and pray, he receives the kind of mercy from prisoners that he showed to my daughter and the 16 others. He’s going to go to prison, and he will die in prison, and I will be waiting to read the news on the that.”

In the likely event that DeSantis signs SB 450 into law, Florida would join Alabama as the only two states that allow a judge to impose the death penalty on the recommendation of a non-unanimous jury.

The matter may well evolve into a legal dispute at the Supreme Court. Prior to 2016, Florida law permitted a judge to impose a capital sentence on the recommendation of seven of 12 jurors. The Supreme Court, however, ruled 8-1 in 2016 that a death sentence based on a mere simple majority was unconstitutional. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented in that case, opining that the Constitution does not require that a jury make specific findings authorizing the imposition of the death penalty.

Four justices who joined the majority in that case — Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer — are no longer on the Court, a change which may give the current conservative bench a chance to rethink the legality of split jury decisions on death sentences.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos