DeSantis suggests allowing death penalty in Florida without a unanimous jury

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Gov. Ron DeSantis raised the idea this week of changing state law to allow juries to impose the death penalty without unanimous agreement, suggesting that perhaps only eight out of 12 jurors need to vote in favor.

DeSantis, in a speech to the Florida Sheriffs Association on Monday, expressed disappointment in the Parkland school shooter being given life in prison. Three out of 12 jurors voted against the death penalty in that case. DeSantis said death penalty verdicts shouldn’t be “vetoed” by one juror, and instead suggested a supermajority vote.

“Maybe eight out of 12 have to agree or something, but we can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” DeSantis said.

His comments came as part of a discussion about what lawmakers may look at in the upcoming legislative session that begins March 7.

Currently, Alabama is the only state that allows nonunanimous jury verdicts for a death sentence. It requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors to vote in favor of the death penalty, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Florida’s requirement for unanimous agreement on the death penalty is relatively recent. A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling, triggered Florida’s move to a unanimous jury system. Before, Florida only required a majority, and judges had the power to override a jury’s decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court said Florida’s capital sentencing gave too much power to judges over juries. Following that ruling, legislators in 2016 passed a bill requiring a 10-2 jury majority to impose capital punishment. But the state Supreme Court said it was in violation of the state Constitution because it was nonunanimous. The next year, legislators passed a bill requiring unanimous jury recommendations.

That seemingly put the issue to rest until 2020, when the Florida Supreme Court reversed its own ruling from four years earlier and said unanimity was not needed. Justices wrote that they had misinterpreted the earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The court said a jury only had to be in unanimous agreement that someone was eligible for the death penalty, not that they should be sentenced to death.

That left the door open for legislators to make changes again. So far, no bill has been filed ahead of this year’s legislative session.

In a statement, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said she was disappointed with the Parkland verdict and that she believes the case has raised public awareness about the current death penalty laws.

“I am open to revisiting the unanimous verdict requirement and look forward to hearing the thoughts of my colleagues and constituents to understand their views on changing our death penalty laws,” Passidomo said.

House Speaker Paul Renner did not return requests for comment on Tuesday. On a November podcast with City & State Florida, Renner, discussing the Parkland shooting verdict, said the House would look to see if a “more nuanced” approach to death penalty cases is appropriate.

“I think it should certainly be an overwhelming vote but I don’t know that it needs to be a unanimous vote,” he said.

About 300 people are on Florida’s death row. On Monday, DeSantis signed the death warrant for a 59-year-old man convicted of a 1990 murder. The execution, which is scheduled for Feb. 23 and will use lethal injection, will be Florida’s first execution since 2019.

Florida has the most death row exonerations of any state in the U.S., with 30 people who were set to be executed later found to be wrongfully convicted, according to the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to fighting wrongful convictions.

In 24 death-row exoneration cases that the Death Penalty Information Center examined, 22 of them had one or more juror vote for life.

“In Florida, we’ve seen so many people sent to the death penalty that were innocent,” said former Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy, who sponsored the 2017 Senate bill to make the death penalty unanimous. “It shouldn’t be easy to kill someone.”

DeSantis has spoken before about the idea of making changes to Florida’s death penalty laws. At a news conference in October in the days after a jury recommended life in prison for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooter, DeSantis said the system needs reforms to better serve victims and “not always bend over backwards to try to do everything we need to for the perpetrators of crimes.”

Former House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who sponsored the House version of the 2017 bill to make the death penalty unanimous, said he pushed for the bill because of the Supreme Court rulings, saying he feared that if the Legislature did not act, some defendants with pending cases would be able to plead to life by claiming there was no valid death penalty in the state.

“I think what we did was kind of put our finger into the dam,” he said.

Sprowls, a former prosecutor, said the threshold for a death penalty would be up to the Legislature to decide. He said a nonunanimous jury builds in a “margin of error” for people who make it onto a jury but refuse to implement the death penalty, and noted that capital sentencing determination comes only after all 12 jurors deem the person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Dunham, with the Death Penalty Information Center, said death penalty juries across the nation are already far more white and more male than the overall community. He said who ends up on a jury in a death penalty case is skewed to exclude people who disagree with capital punishment on principle, which often includes women and Black people.

Dunham said that ”there are clear problems in the way Florida administers its death penalty.”

He said Florida has eroded other safeguards for people facing capital punishment, like the state Supreme Court ruling against independent reviews of death penalty cases to ensure they’re not disproportionately harsh.

If Florida were to lower the threshold in the way DeSantis suggested, “you are guaranteeing that innocent people will be executed,” Dunham said.