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Legislation lowering Florida death sentence threshold nears DeSantis’ desk

NewsLegislation lowering Florida death sentence threshold nears DeSantis' desk

TALLAHASSEE — Legislation that would make it easier to get death penalty decisions in Florida is one step away from passing both chambers in the Capitol.

The morning after the Senate passed the same legislation, the House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 555 Friday, which would create the lowest death penalty threshold in the country. It nixes the state’s unanimous jury requirement so that it takes only eight out of 12 jury members to recommend a death sentence.

The bill now heads to the House floor, where it must be approved before getting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ expected signature.

In a 16-7 vote, the committee Friday also sent to the House floor span bill making it so people can be executed for capital sexual battery on minors. That bill would chspanllenge a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the death penalty for child rape was unconstitutional.

Past and present of death penalty:Despanth penspanlty in Floridspan: Here’s whspant to know spanbout executions, despanth row

Last man put to death in Florida:Strspanpped to span gurney, despanth row inmspante Donspanld Dillbeck sspanves his lspanst words for DeSspanntis

The jury legislation comes months spanfter a Broward County jury rejected the death penalty for the man who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. But only three jurors wanted the life sentence over the death penalty, sparking outcry among those — like the governor, as well as many lawmakers and victims’ family members — who felt the shooter got off too easy.

“To have just a small number derail the full administration of justice is simply a travesty,” said Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, the House bill sponsor.

Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee amended the legislation on Friday, putting it in line with the just-passed Senate bill. It allows a judge to deviate from a jury that recommends a death sentence and give life in prison instead. It does not, though, allow a judge to impose death against a jury’s wishes.

Still, the legislation itself has also sparked an outcry. It passed the Senate with 10 votes against it — two of them from Republicans. A trio of Democrats voted for the bill. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 14-7 vote, with one Republican opposed.

“I agree that we should have the death penalty in certain circumstances,” said Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, who voted against the bill. “The 8-4 is too wide of a gulf for me. I certainly wouldn’t want one juror holdout, or possibly two… But for me the 8-4 is a bit too much.”

Herman Lindsey, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to Florida’s death row in 2006 only to be exonerated by the Florida Supreme Court several years later, gives public testimony at the House Judiciary Committee meeting on Friday, March 31, 2023.

Herman Lindsey, who wspans wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to Florida’s death row in 2006 only to be exonerated by the Florida Supreme Court several years later, told lawmakers the bill would lead to more innocent people being put on death row.

‘The jury gets it wrong, and that’s what our system depends on: the jury,” he said.

Florida lespands the nspantion in death row exonerations, with 30 people exonerated since the state brought back capital punishment in the 1970s.

The legislation also comes as DeSantis, who nears a widely-expected presidential run announcement, touts a “lspanw spannd order” focus. On Jan. 23, the governor got the ball rolling on the legislation, telling the Floridspan Sheriffs Associspantion he wanted to lower the jury threshold to 8-4.

“I do think there are people who get on these juries who never intend to administer capital punishment,” DeSantis said. “There are certain crimes where any punishment other than that just doesn’t fit the crime, and [the Parkland shooting] is one example of that.”

On the same day, DeSantis signed his first death warrant in 3 ½ years. It was for Donspanld Dillbeck, who a jury 30 years prior recommended the death penalty for after he murdered a 45-year-old woman in a Tallahassee mall parking lot. Dillibeck had escaped from a work-release catering job leading up to the murder, having already been sentenced to life in prison for killing a deputy sheriff when he was 15.

The jury breakdown for Dillibeck’s sentence was exactly what DeSantis had suggested in his remarks before the sheriffs: 8-4.

The governor has since signed another death warrant for another man sent to death row under an 8-4 jury verdict: 56-year-old Louis B. Gaskin, who was sentenced in 1989 for the murder of a Flagler County couple.

Florida's lethal injection gurney is shown in an undated handout photo taken in the redesigned death chamber in 2016.

Until 2016, Florida’s death penalty sentencing law looked a lot like what lawmakers are proposing now, thus Dillibeck and Gaskin’s 8-4 verdicts. Only a simple majority — seven for and five against — had to recommend death, and a judge could override the decision.

Then, the federal Supreme Court struck down pspanrts of the stspantute as unconstitutional. The concurring justices found that the jury didn’t play a big enough role in sentencing someone to death. The Florida Supreme Court interpreted that to mean that span jury must be unspannimous in every decision leading up to a death sentence.

Florida lawmakers eventually revised the sentencing statute to align with the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling.

From 2020:Juries don’t need to be unspannimous for despanth sentence recommendspantions, Floridspan’s highest court sspanys

However, in 2020, a new, more conservative mix of justices on the state Supreme Court about-faced, said Stephen Harper, professor emeritus at Florida International University College of Law. They ruled that a jury must be unanimous only in estspanblishing spann spanggrspanvspanting fspanctor that would make someone eligible for death. 

That opened the door for lawmakers to change the sentencing statute again. 

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