Unanimous Jury Recommendations Targeted in Death Cases

TALLAHASSEE — With backing from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida lawmakers could scrap a requirement that unanimous jury recommendations are needed before death sentences can be imposed.

Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, filed a bill (HB 555) on Tuesday that would allow judges to sentence defendants to death based on the recommendations of eight out of 12 jurors. Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, filed an identical bill (SB 450) on Monday.

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The proposed change came six years after lawmakers required unanimous jury recommendations in death cases after a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court, with a newly conservative majority, reversed course in 2020 — effectively allowing lawmakers to consider eliminating the unanimity requirement.

The issue also has gained political momentum in recent months after Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, was sentenced to life in prison. That sentence came after the jury was not unanimous on recommending death.

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“It is unconscionable that ‘protest jurors’ can deny justice to the families of victims of heinous crimes in our current system of unanimity,” Ingoglia said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “This is much needed reform to ensure that evil scumbags like Nikolas Cruz do not escape with just a life sentence.”

DeSantis last week released a series of criminal-justice proposals for the upcoming legislation that included getting rid of the unanimity requirement. DeSantis called for using a “supermajority” requirement, meaning more than a 7-5 majority.

But eliminating the unanimity requirement likely would draw debate, with opponents pointing to issues such as cases in which Death Row inmates have been exonerated.

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The issue involves the sentencing phase of capital cases, not the guilt phase, where juries are required to be unanimous to convict defendants.

Florida long allowed judges to impose death sentences based on majority 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.

After DeSantis took office in January 2019, however, 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.

“Last, lest there be any doubt, we hold that our state Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment … does not require a unanimous jury recommendation — or any jury recommendation — before a death sentence can be imposed,” the 2020 ruling shared by Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston said.

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But Justice Jorge Labarga wrote a highly critical dissent, arguing that the majority “has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida.”

“Today, a majority of this court recedes from the requirement that Florida juries unanimously recommend that a defendant be sentenced to death,” Labarga wrote. “In doing so, the majority returns Florida to its status as an absolute outlier among the jurisdictions in this country that utilize the death penalty.”

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