The governor and many Florida lawmakers want to make it easier to sentence murderers to death. But will their plan live up to their expectations or will it just deepen the legal quagmire that already envelops state-sanctioned executions?
In Florida, adults convicted of first-degree murder face only two sentences — life in prison with no possibility of parole or death by execution. For decades, the 12-person juries did not have to be unanimous in recommending the death penalty. But a series of court decisions late last decade prompted the Legislature to require jurors to be unanimous in recommending death. The question appeared settled until 2020, when the Florida Supreme Court reversed its own decision from four years earlier and said a jury only had to be unanimous that the defendant was eligible for the death penalty, not that they should be put to death.
Now, with the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis, two lawmakers have filed bills that would lower the threshold for recommending a death sentence to an 8-4 majority. The bills also would allow a judge to overrule a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence, and instead sentence the defendant to death. Alabama is the only state with a nonunanimous jury sentencing requirement. It requires at least a 10-2 vote, and it no longer allows trial judges to sentence a defendant to death if the jury voted for life in prison. The two provisions in the new bills would arguably give Florida more leeway to send people to death row than any other state. And that’s a problem.
First, Florida has a terrible track record of convicting innocent people and sentencing them to death. In fact, 30 people set to be executed were later found to be wrongfully convicted, the most in any state in the country, according to the Innocence Project, which fights wrongful convictions. In 22 of 24 death row exoneration cases examined by the Death Penalty Information Center, at least one juror had voted for a life sentence, the Times’ Romy Ellenbogen reported recently. Under the proposed law, that one vote wouldn’t matter anymore. The wrongfully convicted person would still be headed to death row.
Second, why do we think a judge should be allowed to sentence someone to death even when at least five jurors chose a life sentence, a possibility under the proposed law? In fact, an entire jury could recommend life in prison, and a judge could still sentence the defendant to death. Prosecutors helped select those jurors. The judge signed off on the jurors. They sat through all of the testimony. They examined the evidence. They could look the accused killer in the eye. And after weighing all of the factors, they decided to recommend a life sentence. Too much is on the line to then allow a judge to override that considered decision.
Third, the move will almost certainly subject cases to more appeals, at least as the first few make their way through the courts. The lawmakers who have proposed the changes think they are on solid legal ground, but some experts aren’t so sure. Cases in which judges overrule jurors and impose a death penalty are more likely to be vacated on appeal, a former University of Florida professor who studied the death penalty told the Times. Inmates routinely remain on death row for decades. Many die while awaiting an execution date or see their sentences changed to life in prison. These changes would do nothing to speed up the timeline. In fact, by extending the appeals process, the changes might lengthen the time inmates stay on death row.
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The founders of our nation thought impartial juries were so important that they enshrined the right into the Constitution. It’s also worth noting that potential jurors who cannot sentence anyone to death for moral or religious reasons don’t often make it onto juries in death penalty cases. The juries are usually full of people who favor — or at least don’t object to — capital punishment. When they decide that the facts demand a life sentence, we should listen to them.
The proposed changes stem at least in part from the sentence handed out to the young man who killed 17 people in the infamous Parkland school shooting. Gov. DeSantis expressed disappointment that Nikolas Cruz didn’t get the death penalty and has said repeatedly that one juror shouldn’t be able to veto the wishes of the rest of a jury. (In the Cruz case, three jurors recommended a life sentence.) It’s human nature to wonder how a few jurors concluded that murdering 17 people didn’t merit a death sentence. But the legal system requires jurors to assess aggravating and mitigating factors, including the defendant’s age, mental state and prior criminal history. They are supposed to weigh the facts. They aren’t supposed to make it about vengeance or mob rule.
Putting aside personal beliefs about the morality or merits of the death penalty, we should all agree that if the state is going to kill someone, it had better not get it wrong. There are no do-overs. Judges play an important role in that process, but a unanimous jury should decide whether someone should be executed. Unanimity provides a much-needed safeguard against disaster.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.