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Life and Death Changes Made to Capital Punishment in Florida

Florida's new law enables juries to issue death penalty verdicts with only eight out of 12 jurors voting to convict. Critics say the new guidelines may be at loggerheads with Supreme Court precedent, will increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions, and are a reaction to the Parkland shooting case.

Malachi Keane | MediaLab@FAU

Oct 24, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The state of Florida has always had a controversial outlook on the death penalty in comparison to the rest of the nation, though Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest bills on the matter have taken it to new heights. 

As of Oct. 1, the slew of legislative changes made to capital punishment are in full effect, starting with Senate Bill 450 that allowed for a jury to recommend the death penalty on the basis of an 8-to-4 majority vote, as opposed to its former unanimous requirement. It was followed by House Bill 1297 that added sexual battery of minors under 12 to the list of capital offenses, directly going against the ruling by the Supreme Court that deemed this unconstitutional. 

This officially makes Florida the lowest threshold on the matter in the entire country, according to legal analysts, overtaking Alabama, which was previously the only state to require a less-than-unanimous 10-to-2 vote. While critics say this change is drastic, the reasoning behind it was based on a tragic event that changed Florida forever. 

One of the deadliest school shooting cases took place in Parkland, in 2018, resulting in the deaths of 17 students and teachers attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The trial of the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, resulted in a jury vote of 9-to-3 in favor of the death penalty, though at the time a judge couldn’t impose the verdict unless it was unanimous. Instead, Cruz is serving a life sentence behind bars, though some – including most of the victims’ loved ones – believe that the ruling is unjust. 

“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,” said DeSantis in a statement regarding the bill. “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.”

While the reasoning behind the bill’s passing may be noble, there are still many factors to consider when it comes to dealing with life and death decisions. Making massive changes to the law based on one case can lead to questions of constitutionality since it applies to everyone. 

“I think legally there are some very valid challenges to it. The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken very strongly in favor of unanimity on verdicts,” said Carey Haughwout, Public Defender of Palm Beach County and a woman with over 30 years of experience in capital cases. “With the threshold being so low we definitely risk wrongful convictions and sentences, along with greater racial and socioeconomic disparity.”

Florida in particular has a unique history with capital punishment. Prior to 2016, the voting requirement was a 7-to-5 majority and any judge in a capital case was allowed to disregard the jury’s vote and insist upon the death penalty if they deemed it necessary. It was eventually seen as a violation of the state constitution by the Florida Supreme Court, and was effectively changed to a unanimous vote requirement. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida holds the record for the highest number of exonerated people on death row in the entire country, with 30 innocent inmates who were wrongfully convicted of crimes that would have sent them to their deaths. This means that for every three people executed in Florida, one innocent person on death row has been exonerated and released. 

“I definitely think we’re going to see a rise in the number of capital cases in which the death penalty is sought,” said Alexander Smith-Johnson, a Florida based criminal defense attorney with nearly 20 years of experience.

From 2012-2015 there were 126 people sentenced to death in the state of Florida and eight exonerations, charting at the highest in the country during that timespan. After the legislation for unanimous voting was passed in 2016 up until 2022, 32 people received the same sentencing while there were half as many exonerations and all were sentenced prior to the legislative change. 

The new legislation will impact some cases that are likely to attract more than a little attention, including the case against Jamell Demons, a Florida-born rapper who goes by the name YNW Melly.

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating over the legality of applying the new legislation to past cases, but there are forthcoming ones that will be susceptible to this change. One particularly notable case is the retrial of Demons. Broward County Judge John Murphy has already decided that the 8-to-4 capital sentencing statute will be applied to this trial despite attempts from the defense to declare it unconstitutional. 

After receiving a 9-to-3 vote in favor of conviction in his previous trial, Demons is being faced with six additional charges filed upon him by the new lead prosecutor Alixandra Buckelew who previously convicted the murderer of another famous Floridian rapper Jahseh Onfroy, more famously known as XXXTentacion. 

Another aspect of an adjacent bill was the expansion of what is considered a capital offense. With child sexual battery now added to the list, the governor hopes to get the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling and have the reform reach the national level.

However, this leads to contradictions on how these cases should be handled. “I’ve had conversations with judges about if you could get kicked off either for not following the law in the state of Florida that says you can get the death penalty or you didn’t follow the law from the Supreme Court that said it was unconstitutional,” said Haughwout while thinking of the paradox it poses. 

However, legal experts and others in the criminal justice community say that the new legislation may put Florida on a collision course with Supreme Court precedent. 

“I feel very strongly that the government encouraging revenge is a very unhealthy thing to do, and that’s all the death penalty really is about,” said Haughwout. “It doesn’t serve any other purpose, it doesn’t prevent future crimes, and has no deterrent effects on others.” 

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison. (Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

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