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How do Florida juries decide if someone deserves the death penalty?

As state lawmakers aim to no longer require unanimous verdicts, the Times spoke with jurors who have had to decide on capital punishment.
 
Seats are numbered before potential jurors enter the courtroom during jury selection in the trial of Matthew Terry last year in Tampa.
Seats are numbered before potential jurors enter the courtroom during jury selection in the trial of Matthew Terry last year in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 7, 2023|Updated April 7, 2023

It took a jury about 40 minutes to decide that Louis Gaskin should die.

Dubbed by the media the Ninja Killer because of the dark outfit he wore during his crimes, Gaskin had been found guilty of shooting Robert and Georgette Sturmfels as he burglarized their Flagler County home. His defense attorney offered little to weigh against capital punishment.

From what Thomas Stuckey remembers more than three decades after he served on the 12-person jury, they didn’t have much to discuss.

“There was no debate whatsoever,” Stuckey said. “It was cut and dried.”

Court records, though, reflect a vote of 8-4. That means four people voted for life in prison. But the other eight were all that were needed to send Gaskin to death row.

Although Florida law has since changed to require that juries be unanimous if they recommend the death penalty, Gov. Ron DeSantis and some state lawmakers want to return to a lower threshold.

This effort comes months after a Broward County jury declined to recommend a death sentence for Nikolas Cruz, who massacred 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The jury’s decision in that case was met with widespread outrage.

Louis Gaskin
Louis Gaskin [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

It comes also as Gaskin, condemned in 1990, is set to be executed Wednesday night.

The issue of whether death juries should have to be unanimous is one that has long vexed Florida’s legal system.

Research suggests juries take longer, and their discussions are deeper, when everyone has to agree. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Florida shed its status as the only state where death verdicts could come from a simple majority.

Opponents of returning to a lower threshold have noted that even with unanimous juries, Florida still sentences people to death. In the six years since Florida adopted this approach, the state has sent 27 men to death row. In 2022, there were five new Florida death sentences, more than any other state. Alabama, which had the second most, had three.

Berny Jacques, who is sponsoring a House bill that would lower the threshold to 8-4, told the House Judiciary Committee last month that the legislation addresses “activist jurors” who seek to “halt the administration of justice.”

The Tampa Bay Times reached out to more than a dozen people who served on Florida death penalty juries. Seven people responded.

Some felt that unanimity is too much to ask. Others felt 12 votes should be the standard for death, just as it is to convict.

But most said that unanimity would prompt deeper deliberations.

One case, two divided juries

Starting in the 1970s, Florida required a simple majority vote for juries to recommend the death penalty, making 7-5 the minimum. In 2005, the Florida Supreme Court called on the Legislature to revisit the state’s capital sentencing law and require at least some unanimity.

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A year later, the American Bar Association issued a 462-page report that analyzed problems of fairness and accuracy in Florida’s capital punishment system. The authors recommended that the state should require jury unanimity.

The Legislature ignored those suggestions.

Lori Goldsmith was on the jury when William Deparvine first faced the death penalty in 2005. The panel convicted Deparvine of killing Richard and Karla Van Dusen in a remote area of Oldsmar so he could steal the vintage pickup truck they were selling.

When the jury started to talk about his punishment, Goldsmith remembers two people said they were against the death penalty, while two others said they were reluctant to support it.

The discussion, Goldsmith remembers, wasn’t lively, but it wasn’t quiet. They went over some testimony.

With eight votes for death, they had what they needed. Their verdict came in 50 minutes.

If unanimity had been the rule, Goldsmith said, it would have stirred more discussion.

“We probably would’ve deliberated a couple days,” she said. “But I think we could have gotten the other four to agree.”

Deparvine went to death row. But 17 years later, he returned to a Tampa courtroom after a deluge of litigation and lawmaking resulted in a key change: Juries would now have to be unanimous to recommend death.

Juries in cases since 2017 have been required to make several specific findings.

They must decide: Has the state proven the existence of an aggravating factor — like that the defendant had a previous conviction for a violent felony, or that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel? Is that aggravating factor sufficient to warrant a death sentence? Has the defense proven the existence of one or more mitigating factors, which are circumstances that weigh against the death penalty? Do the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors?

And, finally, should the defendant be sentenced to death?

Multiple people who served on juries told the Times they found that process helpful. The verdict form, which detailed each step, guided deliberations.

This year’s legislation would truncate much of that process. Jurors would only need to find that the state has proven an aggravating factor before deciding whether death is appropriate.

William Deparvine sits in court during his second penalty hearing last year in Tampa.
William Deparvine sits in court during his second penalty hearing last year in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

Linda Winkler was on the jury last year when prosecutors again sought the death penalty for Deparvine.

Jurors took an initial vote on paper ballots. It was 9-3 for death, she recalled.

One person explained that they voted against death first, to give the jury time to talk.

Winkler was impressed, she said, at the thoughtfulness and seriousness with which her fellow jurors took the case. They’d paid attention to the evidence, she said.

They worked through the verdict form. When they reached the end, they took a second vote.

It was 10-2 for one of the murders, 11-1 on the other, Winkler said.

With that, they had their decision: Deparvine would get life.

“There was no one on the jury who felt so strongly about the death penalty that they tried to persuade anyone to change their vote,” Winkler said.

If there had been, she said, the verdict might have been different.

Three trials, three death sentences

Randall Deviney
Randall Deviney [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

Randall Deviney went before three Jacksonville juries. He got the death penalty three times.

He was first convicted in 2010 of killing his neighbor, Delores Futrell, cutting her throat with a filet knife before posing her body in a sexual position. The first jury deliberated for an hour, returning a 10-2 vote for death.

Deviney won a new trial due to police misconduct.

Another jury reconsidered the case in 2015.

Randi Pasket was part of the second panel. When they started talking, she remembers, there were a few people strongly favoring death or life, but most seemed to fall somewhere in the middle.

One or two people spoke more than the rest, Pasket said.

They deliberated 35 minutes. Their final vote: 8-4 for death. Deviney was sent back to death row.

Pasket said she felt the discussion was meaningful. If they’d had to be unanimous, though, she said it would have been different.

“I think there would have been a lot more — I don’t want to use the word grandstanding — but people trying to convince other people,” she said.

In 2017, Deviney’s sentence was overturned again after the law changed to require unanimity.

Under the new requirements, a different jury deliberated more than five hours. The third verdict: 12-0 for death.

Pasket said she found the third verdict reassuring.

“I just felt better that, with a unanimous jury, they actually made a similar decision,” she said.

A lone holdout

When a Tampa jury considered the case of Kenneth Jackson in 2012, most had no problem deciding he deserved death, said juror Lori Guerra.

Jackson abducted Cuc Thu Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant and mother of three, in 2007 while she jogged near her Seffner home, then raped and murdered her before setting her body on fire.

“It was an easy decision for most of us,” Guerra recalled. There was one woman, though, who expressed religious reservations. In 90 minutes of discussion, no one tried to persuade the woman to go along, Guerra said. When they made their final decision, the woman seemed satisfied that justice would be served without her commitment to a death sentence.

The final vote: 11-1 for death.

Kenneth Jackson sits in court during his trial.
Kenneth Jackson sits in court during his trial.

Jackson’s was one of scores of cases that got overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty law in 2016. Hillsborough prosecutors opted not to try sending him to death row again. Jackson was resentenced to life in prison.

Guerra said she found the outcome sickening. She said she wonders if they could have convinced the holdout.

“I really don’t know how strong her conviction was,” Guerra said. “But I definitely feel like there is a good chance we could’ve gotten a unanimous verdict if we had to.”

A 12-0 decision

Granville Ritchie stands in court during his 2019 trial. [TIMES | (2019)]
Granville Ritchie stands in court during his 2019 trial. [TIMES | (2019)]

In 2019, Hillsborough County prosecutors sought the death penalty for Granville Ritchie, against whom they secured a conviction for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams.

One juror in the penalty phase began to cry upon hearing the victim’s mother testify.

The judge later closed the courtroom to question the woman about whether she could remain fair and impartial. The juror said she could, but offered more.

“I don’t know if I can say it,” she said. “Because I’m leaning towards life.”

She explained that it wasn’t her final decision. The judge thanked her for her candor.

The prosecutor, Scott Harmon, asked that the woman be removed from the panel. His request was denied.

Harmon later delivered a passionate closing argument, addressing the jury for close to two hours. He emphasized the victim’s innocence, the pain that she would have felt as she died, and urged them to not show mercy to the defendant.

The jury included three schoolteachers, said Christine Bennett, who served as the foreperson. When they deliberated, the inclination toward the death penalty was strong, she said.

But they wanted to talk it through.

“People were saying ‘I just want to think about this,’” Bennett said. “‘I just want to make sure my decision is what it should be.’”

Some mentioned their religious beliefs, whether it was their place to take a life, and how they’d feel if it was their family member on trial, Bennett said.

Their verdict came after three hours: 12-0 for death.