After Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison, the Florida Senate on Monday began moving forward with a proposal that would eliminate a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences can be imposed.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a bill (SB 450) that would allow judges to sentence defendants to death based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors.
The issue emerged after a Broward County jury in October did not unanimously recommend death for Cruz, who murdered 17 students and faculty members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. A judge sentenced Cruz to life in prison.
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Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died in the school shooting, said she was the victim of a “cold, cruel, heinous killer.”
“She was failed by the system that was supposed to protect her, and then sadly, this fall, we saw that she was failed by the justice system,” Montalto told the Senate committee.
The committee voted 6-2 to approve the bill, sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, opposed it.
Polsky’s district includes Parkland, but she pointed to changes that the committee made Monday in the bill and the possibility that it will be revised again. She described it as “not ready for prime time.”
“I do agree that that (Cruz case) is when the death penalty should have been found,” Polsky said. “But I don’t agree that this bill, that is not ready, is the answer.”
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The committee’s vote came a day before the start of the 60-day legislative session. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is slated to take up its version of the bill (HB 555) on Tuesday.
Florida long allowed judges to impose death sentences based on majority, or 7-5, jury recommendations. But that changed after major decisions in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court.
In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, ruled that the state’s death-penalty system was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries, in imposing death sentences.
To try to carry out the ruling, the Legislature quickly passed a measure that required 10-2 jury votes before death sentences could be imposed.
But in October 2016, in the similarly named case of Hurst v. State, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and said unanimous jury recommendations were required. The Legislature responded in 2017 by putting such a unanimous requirement in law.
But after appointments by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Supreme Court, with a newly conservative majority, reversed course in 2020 — effectively allowing lawmakers to consider eliminating the unanimity requirement.
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If lawmakers pass such a bill this year, Florida would join Alabama as the only states that would allow judges to impose death sentences based on non-unanimous jury recommendations, according to a Senate staff analysis.
The proposal would affect only the sentencing process and not what is known as the “guilt phase” of murder cases. Juries would still have to be unanimous in finding defendants guilty before sentencing could begin.
Under changes made Monday, Ingoglia’s bill would require judges to impose death sentences if at least 10 jurors recommend death.
Judges could impose death sentences with the recommendations of eight or nine jurors but also would have the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison. If judges sentence defendants to life, they would have to include in a “written order the reasons for not accepting the jury’s recommended sentence,” the bill said.
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