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Lawmakers vote to scrap unanimous juries for death penalty

The Jury box for the George Zimmerman trial in Sanford, shown on June 17, 2013.
Joe Burbank
Orlando Sentinel via AP
Florida lawmakers voted to eliminate a requirement that death penalties require a unanimous jury.

The Florida House on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would eliminate a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before judges can impose death sentences, sending the issue to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The bill (SB 450) emerged after Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison last year in the 2018 shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty, requiring Cruz to be sentenced to life.

The bill, which the Senate passed March 30, would allow death sentences to be imposed based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors. Judges would have discretion to sentence defendants to life in prison after receiving jury recommendations of death. But in such instances, the judges would have to explain in written orders their reasons for deviating from the death-sentence recommendations.

The bill would affect only the sentencing process and not what is known as the “guilt phase” of murder cases. Juries would still have to be unanimous in finding defendants guilty before sentencing could begin.

The House voted 80-30 to pass the bill, after the Senate voted 29-10.

House sponsor Berny Jacques, a Seminole Republican who is a former prosecutor, said moving away from the unanimity requirement would prevent an “activist juror” from preventing a death sentence. He and other supporters also said requiring a recommendation from eight of 12 jurors would constitute a “supermajority.”

“That supermajority says clearly that it is reflective of the voice of our people,” Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, said.

But opponents questioned the constitutionality of the proposed change and pointed to a history of Florida Death Row inmates being exonerated after their convictions. Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, said sentencing a defendant to death demands the “highest threshold.”

“We are talking about the state injecting chemicals into a person’s body to take their life,” Gantt said.

Similarly, Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Davie, said, “Death is irreversible. Death is different.”

Florida long allowed judges to impose death sentences based on majority jury recommendations. But that changed after decisions in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court.

In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, ruled that the state’s death penalty system was unconstitutional. To try to carry out the ruling, the Legislature quickly passed a measure that required 10-2 jury recommendations before death sentences could be imposed.

But in October 2016, in the similarly named case of Hurst v. State, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and said unanimous jury recommendations were required. The Legislature responded in 2017 by putting such a unanimous requirement in law.

After DeSantis took office in January 2019, he made appointments that created a conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court. In 2020, the court reversed course and said unanimous jury recommendations were not needed — though the unanimous requirement has remained in law.

DeSantis is expected to sign the bill, but opponents have said it likely will face a constitutional challenge.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.