Florida eases path for death penalty after Parkland verdict

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Thursday ending a unanimous jury requirement in death penalty sentencing, a response to a verdict that spared the life of a school shooter who killed 17 people.

DeSantis, a Republican, signed the bill in a private ceremony with families of victims of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland.

The new law, which went into effect as soon as the governor signed it, allows capital punishment in Florida with a jury recommendation of at least 8 to 4 in favor of execution. Only three states out of the 27 that impose the death penalty do not require unanimity. Alabama allows a 10 to 2 decision, and Missouri and Indiana let a judge decide when there is a divided jury.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is escorted from the courtroom after his sentencing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on November 2, 2022. - Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder in t

"Once a defendant in a capital case is found guilty by a unanimous jury, one juror should not be able to veto a capital sentence," DeSantis said in a statement. "I’m proud to sign legislation that will prevent families from having to endure what the Parkland families have and ensure proper justice will be served in the state of Florida."

The governor pushed for the legislation after a divided 9 to 3 jury spared Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz from execution in a verdict last year that outraged victims’ families. Cruz instead received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

"A few months ago, we endured another tragic failure of the justice system. Today’s change in Florida law will hopefully save other families from the injustices we have suffered," said Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed in the shooting.

The legislation was easily passed in the Republican-dominated statehouse. Some Democratic critics had argued the state should not make it easier to send people to death row in reaction to the Cruz case.

DeSantis, an expected presidential candidate, had included the legislation as part of a larger criminal justice package he described as a counter to the "soft on crime" policies in Democrat-led states, a move aimed at conservative voters who typically decide Republican primary contests.

For decades, Florida had not required unanimity in capital punishment, allowing a judge to impose capital punishment as long as a majority of jurors were in favor of the penalty. But in 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out state law, saying it allowed judges too much discretion.

The state Legislature then passed a bill requiring a 10 to 2 jury recommendation, but the state Supreme Court said such recommendations should be unanimous, prompting lawmakers in 2017 to require a unanimous jury.

Three years later, the state Supreme Court, with new conservative jurists appointed by DeSantis, rescinded its earlier decision and ruled that a death recommendation does not need to be unanimous. Florida’s unanimity standard had remained untouched, though there was no overwhelming desire to change state law before the Cruz case.