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Florida clears a path to no longer require unanimous juries in death penalty cases

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz enters the courtroom for a sentencing hearing Tuesday at the Broward County Courthouse.
Amy Beth Bennett
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz enters the courtroom for a sentencing hearing Tuesday at the Broward County Courthouse.

Florida will soon no longer require unanimous jury recommendations for judges to impose death-penalty sentences under a bill the Legislature approved Thursday, a reaction to the life sentence handed to the man who massacred 17 people at a Parkland high school.

The House passed the bill on a 80-30 vote. It now goes to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for final approval. It will allow the death penalty with a jury recommendation of at least 8-4 in favor of execution. DeSantis supports the proposal.

Republicans and Democrats agreed that the reason they were considering the bill was because a divided 9-3 jury spared Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz from capital punishment for the 2018 massacre. He instead received a life sentence with no parole.

“One of the most evil acts in our nation’s history occurred down in Parkland,” said Republican Rep. Berny Jacques, the bill's sponsor. “Those Parkland families were left devastated … because in that situation no one doubted the guilt of this evil person.”

But Democrats argued that the state shouldn't make it easier to impose a punishment that can't be reversed just because of the Cruz decision.

“We have this bill her today because of one case,” Democratic Rep. Daryl Campbell said. ”More people will be sentenced to death whether they are innocent or guilty because the Legislature decided that human life can be ended by majority."

Only three states out of the 27 that impose the death penalty do not require unanimity. Alabama allows a 10-2 decision, and Missouri and Indiana let a judge decide when there is a divided jury.

Florida has executed two convicted murderers this year, including one on Wednesday, and another execution is scheduled in three weeks. DeSantis, who is a likely presidential candidate, hadn’t overseen an execution since 2019 before signing the three death warrants this year.

Barring any stays, it will be the shortest period that three executions have been carried out in Florida since 2014 under former Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican.

For decades, Florida had not required unanimity in capital punishment. The state previously allowed a judge to impose capital punishment as long as a majority of jurors were in favor of the penalty. But in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out state law, saying it allowed judges too much discretion.

The state Legislature then passed a bill requiring a 10-2 jury recommendation. But the state Supreme Court said such recommendations should be unanimous, prompting lawmakers in 2017 to require just that.

Three years later, the state Supreme Court, with new conservative jurists appointed by DeSantis, rescinded its earlier decision and ruled that a death recommendation does not need to be unanimous. Florida’s unanimity standard has remained untouched until now.

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