Florida lawmakers pass bill creating easier path for death penalty

New measure comes after Parkland gunman Nikolas Cruz sentenced to life in prison
Posted at 8:49 PM, Apr 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-13 20:51:57-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — 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 an 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.

The bill was filed after the outrage over a divided 9-3 jury sparing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz from capital punishment for the 2018 massacre. He instead received a life sentence with no parole.

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.

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Nikolas Cruz escorted into courtroom for sentencing hearing, Nov. 2, 2022
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is escorted into the courtroom for a sentencing hearing Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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 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.