In an issue that emerged after Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved eliminating a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before judges can impose death sentences.
“Nikolas Cruz acted as judge, jury and, unfortunately, executioner also,” Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said. “If a monster like that, who commits heinous crimes like that, does not deserve and get the death penalty, then what do we have a death penalty for?”
The Senate voted 29-10 to pass a bill (SB 450), sponsored by Ingoglia, that would allow death sentences to be imposed based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors.
Judges would have discretion to sentence defendants to life in prison after receiving jury recommendations of death sentences. But in such instances, the judges would have to explain in written orders their reasons for deviating from the death-sentence recommendations.
Thursday’s vote in the Republican-controlled Senate was mostly along party lines. Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, and Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, crossed party lines to vote for the bill. Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, and Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, joined most Democrats in voting against it.
Pizzo said he thought more senators would have supported the bill if it would have required recommendations of 10 of 12 jurors. While he voted for the bill, he also expressed concern about lawmakers making a change in reaction to a single case.
“But let’s just be intellectually honest about why we’re doing it, if that (Cruz) verdict didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be having this bill,” Pizzo, a former prosecutor, said.
A House version of the bill (HB 555) is slated to be heard Friday by the House Judiciary Committee.
Cruz was sentenced last year to life in prison after a Broward County jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty. He murdered 17 students and faculty members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
The Senate bill 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.
Florida long allowed judges to impose death sentences based on majority jury recommendations. But that changed after 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. To try to carry out the ruling, the Legislature quickly passed a measure that required 10-2 jury recommendations 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.
After Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in January 2019, he made appointments that created a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. In 2020, the court reversed course and said unanimous jury recommendations were not needed — though the unanimous requirement has remained in law.
If the Legislature and DeSantis move away from a unanimous-jury requirement, the change likely will face a constitutional challenge. During a committee meeting this month, Aaron Wayt, who represented the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, pointed to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and said he thinks the change would be found unconstitutional.