Florida juries no longer need to be unanimous to recommend death
Agreement is needed from only eight jurors for a death penalty recommendation. That’s under a new Florida law signed by Governor Ron DeSantis Thursday. Critics say Florida now has the lowest threshold in the county for death penalty verdicts.
The new law was largely influenced by frustration over the sentencing of Parkland school shooter Nicholas Cruz who killed 17 and injured 17 more in 2018. Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Hollywood) says Cruz deserves to die.
“He doesn’t deserve to live, and he deserves to die," Pizzo said. "But again, a deliberate body can’t just immediately react to one horrific case.”
Pizzo says he felt some ambivalence about the measure, but ultimately voted in favor of it. Bill sponsor Sen. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill) says the measure isn’t just about the Parkland shooting. He says Cruz’s sentencing exposed a “flaw” in Florida’s system.
“That verdict shocked the conscience, not only of the people of Parkland, not only the people in Florida, but people across the United States of America," Ingoglia said.
In Cruz’s case, jurors voted 9-3 to recommend the death penalty—not enough to meet the unanimity requirement in place at the time. Under the new law, jurors need to unanimously agree on a person’s guilt and must unanimously agree that at least one aggravating factor was present that would qualify a person for death penalty sentence, but only 8 jurors would need to agree to recommend a death sentence.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) says lowering the bar for death penalty sentences is concerning, especially since Florida has the highest rate of death row exonerations in the country.
"There are gaps in our very fine criminal justice system—perhaps relating to law enforcement, prosecutorial scrutiny or other factors. What this means is that we get it wrong the most," Driskell told lawmakers on the House floor.
Right now 22 other states have active death penalty provisions. Most require a unanimous decision. Alabama allows a judge to impose a death sentence based on a 10-2 jury vote. In Indiana and Missouri, non-unanimous juries are considered “hung juries” and a judge decides.
Ingoglia says the new law stops a single “activist” juror from being able to control the outcome of the sentencing.
Florida changed its sentencing rules in 2017 when lawmakers passed legislation requiring a unanimous jury decision to sentence someone to death. The requirement before that was a simple majority—meaning agreement from 7 out of 12 jurors. A 2016 state supreme court ruling found that practice was unconstitutional. But House bill sponsor Rep. Berny Jacques (R-Clearwater) says the now more conservative state supreme court walked that back some in a 2020 opinion.
"The Florida Supreme Court came back four years later and said we got it wrong," Jacques said. "Yes, unanimous to convict somebody. Yes, unanimous to find that an aggravating factor exists that would make somebody eligible for the death penalty, but when it comes to that recommendation, that last phase, there is nothing constitutionally required to recommend a unanimous jury recommendation.”
Now that the bill has been signed, the law goes into effect immediately.