DeSantis signs bill giving Florida lowest death penalty threshold in US

Florida now has the lowest jury vote requirement in the nation, allowing it with an 8-4 decision.
Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on as guests speak a podium at the State Attorney's Office 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on as guests speak a podium at the State Attorney's Office 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 20|Updated April 20

People in Florida can now be sent to death row with an 8-4 jury vote, instead of a unanimous requirement, after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law Thursday morning.

DeSantis pushed to reduce Florida’s death penalty threshold, citing the outcome of the Parkland school shooting case — where the gunman who killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High was given a life sentence after only nine of the 12 jurors voted for death.

DeSantis signed the bill in a private ceremony in the Capitol alongside some of the family members of children killed in that shooting.

“Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence,” DeSantis said in a statement.

“Today’s change in Florida law will hopefully save other families from the injustices we have suffered,” Ryan Petty, the father of murdered Parkland student Alaina Petty, said in the same news release released by the governor’s office.

Florida will now have the lowest death penalty threshold in the nation. It will join Alabama as the only other state that doesn’t require a unanimous jury vote. Alabama’s threshold is 10-2.

The bill, SB 450, saw legislators breaking away from typical party lines. Some Democrats, especially those from South Florida, voted for the bill, while some Republicans voted against it.

Florida has required a unanimous jury since a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled the state’s death penalty scheme gave too much power to judges but not enough to juries. In interpreting that ruling, the Florida Supreme Court decided a unanimous jury vote was required.

But in 2020, the Florida Supreme Court reversed that ruling and said only an aggravating factor had to be decided unanimously, leaving the door open for legislators to reduce the requirement again. Aggravating factors have to do with the circumstances of the crime or the victim’s status, like someone being younger than 12.

Opponents of the bill fear it opens Florida up to more possible errors, citing Florida’s history of having the most death row exonerations in the nation — 30 since the 1970s. The majority of those exonerated were sent to death row without a unanimous jury vote, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Herman Lindsey, the 23rd death row exoneree in Florida, was initially sentenced on an 8-4 jury vote.

“My jury got it wrong then, and allowing non-unanimity in the penalty phase diminished the jury’s responsibility and deliberative process,” Lindsey, who is now vice chairperson of the Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “We need to find a way to fix our system, not continue to break it.”

The bill keeps in place a judge’s ability to override a jury’s vote for death and sentence someone to life in prison instead. If a jury recommends life in prison, however, the judge must give that sentence.

In his first term, DeSantis signed only two death warrants. But less than half a year into his second term, he has signed three warrants. Two of the inmates have already been executed, and the third execution is scheduled for May.

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