Gov. DeSantis Pushes For Repealing Unanimous Death Penalty Requirement For Jurors

Mitch Perry, Florida Phoenix

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday that he wants the Florida Legislature to change the state law that requires a unanimous jury to impose a death sentence.

Speaking at the Florida Sheriffs Association Winter Conference in St. Johns County, the governor noted that mass shooter Nikolas Cruz — who killed 17 students and staff at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018 — was able to avoid a death sentence last November because a Broward County jury failed to unanimously agree to do so.

“Bottom line, that should probably be changed by statute,” DeSantis said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘yeah, obviously a majority of the jury has to – maybe a supermajority, but that one person (is) able to veto that?’”

There were actually three jurors who voted against Cruz’s execution last fall, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

A few years ago, that would have been a sufficient number of jurors to put someone to death, as Florida previously allowed just a simple majority of 12 jurors to vote to execute someone on death row as recently as 2016.  At that time, Florida was one of only three states that allowed a simple majority of jurors to recommend execution. That changed when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of Florida’s law in 2016.

The Legislature then changed the law to require a 10-2 majority to recommend the death penalty, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled later in 2016 that such a measure would also violate the state’s Constitution.

The Legislature then came back in 2017 and voted to require a unanimous jury decision to invoke a death sentence on an inmate. The measure passed 37-0 in the state Senate, and 112-3 in the House.

The decision not to give Cruz the death penalty was met with strong opposition by most of the family members of the Parkland victims such as Fred Guttenberg, who has become a gun safety advocate after he lost his daughter Jaime in the shooting. He said he “was stunned and devasted” by the decision.

There were also politicians from both sides of the aisle who expressed disappointment at the verdict, such as 2022 Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, who said in a statement that “there are crimes for which the only just penalty is death,” in reaction to the verdict.

During a press availability this morning, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book said lawmakers will have to deal with the issue about whether to change the current law requiring a unanimous jury decision in the upcoming legislative session.

“If there ever was a person who deserved the death penalty, Nikolas Cruz is that person,” Book said.

Her Democratic colleague in the House, Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, said she opposed changing the current law.

“When you are looking at the possibility of the ultimate punishment, putting someone to death, you have to make sure that you get it right,” she said, noting how Florida leads the nation in exonerations from death row with 30. “I don’t think that reducing the number of jurors required for the death penalty to be the sentence in that case is the right move.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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