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Florida Senate OKs easier path to imposing death penalty

Death Penalty
Posted at 12:04 PM, Mar 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-31 12:04:23-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Senate on Thursday passed a bill repealing a law requiring a unanimous jury recommendation for the death penalty, a reaction to the life sentence handed to the man who massacred 17 people at a Parkland high school.

The bill passed on a 29-10 vote and will allow the death penalty with a jury recommendation of at least 8-4 in favor of execution. The House still needs to approve the bill. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis supports the proposal.

The bill was proposed after a divided 9-3 jury spared Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz in November from capital punishment for killing 17 at the school in 2018. The Parkland school shooter instead received a life sentence.

“What happened in Parkland was abhorrent. What happened in Parkland was a tragedy that will forever stain this state,” said Republican Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, the bill sponsor. “That verdict shocked the conscience not only of the people of Parkland, not only the people in Florida, but people across the United State of America.”

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.

For decades, Florida had not required unanimity in capital punishment, allowing 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 a unanimous jury.

Three years later, the state Supreme Court, with new conservative jurists appointed by DeSantis, rescinded its earlier decision and ruled that a death recommendation does not need to be unanimous.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.

While Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo voted for the bill, he warned senators that they shouldn't be passing legislation like this because of one case, even if they, like he, believe Cruz deserves the death penalty.

“This deliberate body can't just immediately react to one particular horrific case,” he said. “I can make the argument on either side, but let's just be intellectually honest about why we're doing it: If that verdict didn't happen, we wouldn't be having this bill.”