By Gray Rohrer
Florida is one step closer to allowing death sentences by an 8-4 vote of a jury — instead of the current requirement that the vote be unanimous — after the Senate voted in favor of SB 450.
The bill and much of the debate surrounding it centered on the sentencing of the gunman who killed 17 people, including 14 students, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018. Jurors in the case voted 9-3 to recommend the death penalty. The shooter was instead sentenced to life in prison.
“What happened in Parkland was a tragedy that will forever stain this state,” said Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican and sponsor of the bill. “What that verdict did do was expose a flaw in the current system.”
The vote was 29-10, with three Democrats — Sens. Jason Pizzo of Hollywood, Lauren Book of Plantation, and Linda Stewart of Orlando — voting in favor of the measure and two Republicans — Sens. Ileana Garcia of Miami and Erin Grall of Vero Beach — voting against it.
Pizzo’s and Book’s districts cover Broward County, where Parkland sits.
“Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people. It wasn’t an accidental heat of passion,” Pizzo said. “A deranged animal, a rabid dog, knows when to stop and he didn’t … if that verdict didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be having this bill.”
In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2016 that Florida’s capital punishment scheme was unconstitutional because juries merely recommended a sentence to a judge, who made the ultimate decision.
What that verdict did do was expose a flaw in the current system.” – Sen. Blaise Ingoglia.
The Legislature then changed the law to allow for a 10-2 vote of a jury to hand down a death sentence, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a unanimous jury was required. Lawmakers then approved a law requiring unanimous juries in 2017.
But, after Gov. Ron DeSantis flipped the balance of the court in 2019 following a series of retirements of liberal justices, the Florida high court reversed that decision in 2020, clearing the path for non-unanimous juries to issue the death penalty.
The bill now heads to the House. The House version of the bill (HB 555) has passed through two committees and is scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
This article was reprinted with permission from Florida Politics News Service.