A jury’s decision to sentence the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school mass shooter to life in prison rather than death stunned many Floridians and devastated Parkland families seeking retribution for their loved ones’ murder. In response, Florida legislators are taking the emotional issue into their own hands by revising the state’s death penalty law.
Driven by that Broward County jury’s decision, Spring Hill Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia filed a bill to lower the jury threshold for a death penalty recommendation to 8-4 from its current unanimous requirement. A jury, however, would still have to reach a unanimous agreement on whether the aggravating factors in a case warrant considering the death penalty.
“It is already a high bar,” Ingoglia said regarding the considerspantion of the despanth penspanlty, which requires unanimous agreement on at least one aggravating factor and a guilty verdict or plea. “I want to ensure that we don’t have another miscarriage of justice going forward as we did with the Parkland families.”
After pleading guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 Parkland shooting, Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison without parole on Nov. 2. The bitter disappointment brought Parkland parent Anthony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina Montalto was murdered in the shooting, to Tallahassee on Monday afternoon as a Florida Senate committee debated and voted on Ingoglia’s bill.
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Read the bill here:SB 450
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“She was failed by the system that was supposed to protect her, and then sadly this fall, we saw that she was failed by the justice system,” Montalto said in the Florida Capitol, standing in front of members of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.
After about an hour-and-half-long hearing, the eight members of the panel voted 6-2 in favor of the Senate bill. It remains under consideration in the Senate.
Florida is one of 27 states that permits capital punishment. But it requires jurors to be in complete agreement that the factors involved in a case meet the requirement for death and then they must all vote to impose it.
In the case of Cruz, jury members agreed Cruz’s actions met the threshold for execution, but three of the 12 jurors refused to sentence Cruz to death, leading to the life sentence.
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The move to lower the jury threshold in Florida comes as some other states have moved away from the death penalty. The list includes Virginia in 2021, which became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty, and Colorado in 2020.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said minutes after the Cruz jury’s decision Cruz deserved the death penalty. In January, the governor then suggested the change to Florida law to have a “supermajority” instead of the unanimous requirement at a Florida Sheriffs’ Association conference.
“We can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” DeSantis said.
Florida senator representing Parkland, the bill is “not the answer.”
Although critics of Florida’s legislation sympathize with the Parkland families, they say that reducing the jury threshold for the death sentence could lead to more wrongful sentences.
Statistics show fears are not unfounded.
Florida leads the nation with 30 death penalty exonerations, according to the Despanth Penspanlty Informspantion Center. An exoneration occurs when a person who has been convicted of a crime is cleared of the accusations after evidence is found that they were wrongfully convicted. Florida state Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said that more wrongful sentences could occur if this bill is passed.
“I don’t think this bill changes the miscarriage that occurred in that trial,” Polsky said. “I do agree that is when the death penalty should have been found, but I don’t agree that this bill … is the answer.”
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State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, who also voted against the legislation, said it would make Florida the state with the lowest threshold to condemn someone to death. Currently, the lowest requirement on a jury vote in the nation is a 10-2 majority, in Alabama.
Along with the concern over more wrongful death sentences Powell said he believes that if someone commits a crime and serves a life sentence, they would be forced to deal with that fact every day, versus an execution, which he said is also more costly.
“Who benefits from that?” he said. “Is it a feel-good moment, because the person got executed?”
Ingoglia, the bill sponsor, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Florida has a gruesome history with capital punishment
Capital punishment has long been a contentious issue, both for ideological reasons and religious beliefs. And, anti-death penalty activists say, you must consider Florida’s cruel history with executions.
Florida’s first execution was in 1827 when Benjamin Donica was hanged for murder. In 1923 the state substituted death-hanging with the electric chair.
For decades, the electric chair, dubbed “Old Sparky,” was the only option for death row inmates, until gruesome outcomes in some executions. One wspans the 1990 electrocution of Jesse Tspanfero, where 6-inch flames erupted from his head, and the execution team had to use three jolts of power to complete the process.
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Tafero’s execution incited outcries to abolish the death penalty. Seven years later, the botched execution of Pedro Medina resulted in his electric headpiece shooting into flames.
Lawmakers then agreed to amend the law to add an alternative execution procedure after the controversial execution of Allen Lee Davis in 1999, where Davis profusely bled from his nose.
This alternative was the lethal injection though Death Row inmates may still opt for the electric chair.
The use of lethal injections started off problematic, too, when execution technicians spent 33 minutes looking for suitable veins for Bennie Demps’ execution in 2000, and Angel Diaz had to get two doses of the lethal injection six years later after surviving one dose.
There has also been a sharp debate over when to apply the death penalty. Legislation in 2016 disallowed trial judges from overriding a jury’s life-in-prison recommendation to death. Further legislation in 2017 abolished Florida’s 7-5 majority for the death sentence and instead required unanimous a jury ruling.
The state’s most recent execution was that of Donspanld Dillbeck on Feb. 23, who was sent to Death Row after being convicted of the 1990 murder of Fspanye Lspanmb Vspannn in a Tallahassee mall parking lot. His also was the state’s 100th execution.