DeSantis Signs Law Lowering Death Penalty Threshold in Florida

MIAMI — Florida will become the state with the lowest threshold for imposing the death penalty under a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday, which will allow juries to recommend capital punishment without a unanimous vote.

The change, which will allow juries to recommend a death sentence with an 8-to-4 vote, was prompted by a Florida jury’s decision last year to sentence to life in prison without parole the gunman who murdered 17 people in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The jury had voted 9 to 3 in favor of the death penalty in that case, but state law required a unanimous vote to recommend it.

Mr. DeSantis, who has been traveling across the country ahead of an expected 2024 Republican presidential campaign, received and quietly signed the law on Thursday, according to the state’s legislative websites. He did not hold a public bill-signing event.

“We can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” he said in January, when he backed the proposed legislation.

Nearly all of the 27 states that allow the death penalty require unanimous 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.

“It should be hard to send someone to the death penalty,” said Randolph Bracy, a former Democratic state senator from Orlando, who sponsored legislation in 2017 to require a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence. “Florida has the highest rate of wrongful convictions, I think, in the country,” he added. “We needed that threshold to make sure that we were doing the right thing.”

He said he expected the new law to be challenged in court.

Sparing the life of the Parkland high school gunman last October outraged many victims’ families, who felt that suffering through a grueling trial would at least result in a near-certain death sentence. But the jury’s 9-to-3 vote for death failed to meet the state’s unanimity requirement, prompting some families to publicly question what the death penalty was for, if not for the perpetrator of a mass shooting that killed 14 teenagers and three adults.

One juror later described frustrating and truncated deliberations in which the majority could hardly engage a juror who had made up her mind against death because she considered the gunman mentally ill.

Shortly after, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, and other state lawmakers vowed to reverse the 2017 Florida law that required a unanimous jury vote. That law followed a 2016 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that struck down the state’s previous requirement of only a simple majority vote — seven out of 12 jurors — to impose capital punishment in the state.

In 2020, the state Supreme Court, which by then had more conservative justices in its ranks, published a nonbinding opinion that the unanimity requirement could be reversed. But lawmakers did not take up the matter until after Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland gunman, avoided the death penalty.

Mr. Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 murder charges, for the people he killed at the school on Feb. 14, 2018, and 17 attempted murder charges, for the people he injured. The jury of seven men and five women had to weigh aggravating factors to justify the death penalty, as well as mitigating circumstances to spare his life.

The new law eliminating the unanimity requirement received bipartisan support in the Florida Legislature, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A few Republicans voted against it, while several Democrats voted in favor, including some from liberal Broward County, where Parkland is.

One of the Republicans who opposed the measure, State Representative Mike Beltran of Riverview, a lawyer, has said that while he believed that the Parkland gunman should have been sentenced to death, state law should continue to require unanimous juries to impose capital punishment.

Separately in the current lawmaking session, the House and Senate passed legislation allowing the death penalty to be imposed on defendants convicted of sexual battery against children.

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