DeSantis mulls signing bill that would lower threshold for death sentence

by mcardinal

Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News

Friday, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow a person in the state to be sentenced to death by an 8-to-4 vote of a jury. 

The bill, which had already passed the Republican-led Senate, cleared the largely conservative House by an 80-to-30 vote and now awaits the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

DeSantis has pushed for death penalty reform since Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz was spared the death penalty by a 9-to-3 vote of a jury after being convicted on 17 counts of murder following the now-infamous 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 

“I’m sorry, when you murder 17 people in cold blood, the only appropriate punishment is capital punishment,” DeSantis said last October. He added, “That was a miscarriage of justice that did not honor the victims and the families, and all that they went through.”

The connection between the pending Florida law and Cruz’s sentence is undeniable. Even though DeSantis has also stated that he supports capital punishment for sexual predators, the Cruz case has dominated the conversation in Florida. 

“One of the most evil acts in our nation’s history occurred down in Parkland,” USA Today quoted Republican Rep. Berny Jacques, the bill’s sponsor, as saying. “Those Parkland families were left devastated … because in that situation no one doubted the guilt of this evil person.”

Opponents of the bill argue that conservatives are over-correcting the system when, legally speaking, it’s too late to do anything about the Cruz verdict. 

“We have this bill here today because of one case,” USA Today quoted Democratic Rep. Daryl Campbell as saying. “More people will be sentenced to death whether they are innocent or guilty because the Legislature decided that human life can be ended by majority.”

Historically speaking, until 2016, Florida juries could recommend the death penalty on a simple majority with a separate hearing being required during which a judge would determine the appropriateness of the sentence. 

Seven years ago, the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death sentencing statute. In 2017, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law that created the unanimous-vote standard.

But when Cruz was spared death by three dissenters, which left the victims’ families devastated,  the overwhelming reaction among conservative lawmakers was that if Cruz’s actions didn’t rise to the level of a unanimous vote, no crime could. 

DeSantis has suggested that, since the Supreme Court ruled the previous threshold was too low and the Cruz decision suggests the 100 percent threshold cannot be reached, the death penalty could be appropriately issued via a super-majority majority vote. 

Assuming DeSantis signs the new bill into law, the Supreme Court will almost certainly be asked to weigh in again. 

While most states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury vote, there are already three states – Alabama, Indiana, and Missouri – which allow a death sentence at a lower threshold. 

Relaxing the threshold to 8-to-4 would make Florida the state with the lowest barrier to the death penalty. 

Alabama allows such a sentence on a 10-to-2 vote, while Indiana and Missouri require that a judge decide the fate of convicted persons when a jury is split. 

There was originally some speculation that DeSantis might sign the bill on Friday, but to have done so would have been outside of the norm for the governor, who has a reputation for staging press conferences at deliberately chosen locations when he signs major pieces of legislation into law.