Here’s a safeguard that Florida lawmakers should add to the death penalty law | Editorial
Bills in the House and Senate would change the law to allow nonunanimous juries to impose a death sentence.
The Florida Senate passed a more aggressive death penalty bill Thursday. Pictured here is Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
The Florida Senate passed a more aggressive death penalty bill Thursday. Pictured here is Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 31|Updated March 31

Two bills sailing toward the governor’s desk would scrap a requirement that jury recommendations be unanimous for the death penalty, pushing Florida’s threshold for capital punishment to the lowest in the nation. This is bad law that invites a deadly mistake. The House should at least follow the Senate’s lead in including an important judicial guardrail over this fateful decision.

With backing from Gov. Ron DeSantis, lawmakers are seeking to end Florida’s requirement that all 12 jurors in a capital case unanimously agree on recommending death before that penalty could be imposed. SB 450 and HB 555 lower that threshold to a minimum of eight jurors.

Florida’s requirement for unanimous agreement on the death penalty is relatively recent. A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and a subsequent Florida Supreme Court ruling, triggered Florida’s move to a unanimous jury system. Before, Florida required only a majority, and judges had the power to override a jury’s decision. But the state high court, with a newly conservative majority, reversed course in 2020 — effectively allowing lawmakers to consider eliminating the unanimity requirement.

The bills moved quickly this year through both chambers as legislators sought to burnish their law-and-order credentials. The Senate passed its bill Thursday by a vote of 29-10, one day after rejecting an amendment proposed by Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach to bump the requirement for death to 10 jurors. The House bill cleared its final committee Friday and is headed to the floor for a vote.

The Senate bill, however, includes one important backstop. If at least eight jurors recommend death, the judge could impose death or a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, after a consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The House bill was amended Friday to give judges the same discretion. That’s a good step, but lawmakers should ensure that the language remains in the final version of the bill, and doesn’t get stripped out at the last minute.

Allowing this judicial scrutiny is the bare minimum that Florida should provide in capital cases. Currently, Alabama is the only state that allows nonunanimous jury verdicts for a death sentence; it requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors to vote in favor of death. Lowering the standard to eight is dangerous enough in a state that has the nation’s highest number of death row exonerations. There is no do-over for executing an innocent person.

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.