DeSantis’ push to lower Florida’s death penalty threshold passes House

The bill would make Florida one of only two states to not use a unanimous jury.
The Florida Legislature has passed a priority bill of Gov. Ron DeSantis to require the vote of only eight jurors out of 12 in order to implement capital punishment.
The Florida Legislature has passed a priority bill of Gov. Ron DeSantis to require the vote of only eight jurors out of 12 in order to implement capital punishment. [ PATTI SAPONE | ]
Published April 13, 2023|Updated April 14, 2023

Florida is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature away from having the lowest death penalty threshold in the nation after state lawmakers approved a bill to require the vote of only eight jurors out of 12 in order to approve capital punishment.

SB 450, a priority of DeSantis, passed out of the House on an 80-30 vote Thursday evening. The Senate passed the legislation in March.

Florida, like most states, currently requires juries to unanimously agree that a defendant deserves to be put to death. Alabama is the only state not to require unanimity; its threshold is a vote of at least 10-2 in favor.

DeSantis and other proponents of the bill have repeatedly cited the jury vote in the case of the Parkland school shooter who killed 17 people. Jurors split, with nine in favor of the death penalty and three opposed, so the gunman was sentenced to life in prison.

Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, the House sponsor, has said the bill will allow “activist jurors to act out and justice to still be enacted.”

Florida’s Legislature required a unanimous jury vote after a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case deemed Florida judges had too much power compared to juries. In interpreting that ruling, Florida’s Supreme Court said unanimity was required.

But in 2020, with a different court makeup, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision and said only an aggravating factor must be found unanimously. Aggravating factors have to do with the facts of a crime or the circumstances of the victim affected.

Jacques has said that for the majority of Florida’s history, only a simple majority was required for a death sentence. He called the state’s current requirement “flawed.”

Opponents of the bill have highlighted Florida’s track record with the death penalty. The state has the highest number of exonerations in the nation, at 30. The majority of those exonerated were sent to death row by nonunanimous jury votes.

House Speaker Paul Renner said there’s always concern about incarcerating innocent people, but that the problem is at the guilt phase of trial, where a unanimous jury is still required.

“You always worry about anyone that is not guilty being convicted, for sure, but I think that this is a positive change,” Renner said.

Rep. Michael Gottlieb, a Democrat and criminal defense attorney from Davie, said he believes reducing the jury requirement will mean juries try to get to a decision “sooner and without as much deliberation as we would have if we had a unanimous verdict.”

Thursday’s vote fell mostly along party lines, with some Democrats, including Reps. Dan Daley and Hillary Cassel, who represent parts of Broward County, voting in favor of the legislation. Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, did not vote for the legislation.

Three Republican representatives voted against the bill: Mike Beltran of Riverview, Will Robinson of Bradenton and Dana Trabulsy of Fort Pierce.

The bill’s passage comes a day after Florida executed inmate Louis Gaskin, its 101st execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Gaskin was sentenced to death on an 8-4 jury decision.

Another execution is scheduled for May, and the state executed another inmate in February. It is a ramp-up for DeSantis, who signed only two death warrants in his first term.

The House on Thursday also passed a bill that would allow the death penalty for people who sexually batter children younger than 12. HB 1297 passed on a 95-14 vote. The Senate has not yet passed its version of the bill.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the death penalty could not be applied in any case other than murder. The bill takes direct aim at that precedent.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jessica Baker, R-Jacksonville, has said the court got it wrong, and that it’s up to the people of Florida to determine adequate punishment for crimes.

“There is no earthly redemption for somebody who rapes a small child. Only God can save them,” Baker said. “And in Florida, we should be eager to arrange that meeting.”

The measure has gotten bipartisan support, including in the Senate, where Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, is a co-sponsor.

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