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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

The Florida Senate will vote to eliminate unanimous jury recommendations in death penalty cases

 Blaise Ingoglia listening during a meeting
Colin Hackley
News Service of Florida
Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, is sponsoring a bill that would revamp Florida's death-penalty laws.

The bill's sponsor says it's an effort to avoid one “protest juror” from preventing a death sentence.

A key Senate committee Wednesday supported eliminating a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences can be imposed, but it backed giving judges discretion in making the ultimate decisions.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 15-4 to approve a bill (SB 450) that would allow death sentences to be imposed based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors — a standard that bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, described as being “the most aggressive of all 50 states.”

The bill is now ready to go to the full Senate, while a House version (HB 555) also has started moving through committees.

The issue of revamping death-penalty laws emerged after Nikolas Cruz last year received a life sentence for the murders of 17 students and faculty members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. The life sentence came after a Broward County jury did not unanimously recommend death.

Ingoglia said the state needs to move away from a requirement of unanimity because one “protest juror” could prevent death sentences.

“I believe that unanimity is a very, very high bar — too high of a bar,” Ingoglia told the Rules Committee.

But Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who opposed the bill, said “unanimity is the right balance when death is the final penalty.” Rouson and other opponents pointed to cases where inmates have been exonerated after new evidence emerged in their cases.

“It’s hard to reverse an execution, and I think the current state of the law is sufficient,” Rouson said.

The committee approved a Ingoglia-backed change that would allow judges to sentence defendants to life in prison after receiving recommendations of death sentences from juries. In such instances, the judges would have to explain in written orders their reasons for deviating from the death-sentence recommendations.

An earlier version of Ingoglia’s bill would have required judges to impose death sentences if at least 10 jurors recommended death. Under that version, judges could have imposed death sentences with the recommendations of eight or nine jurors but also would have had the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison in such cases.

The bill would affect only the sentencing process and not what is known as the “guilt phase” of murder cases. Juries would still have to be unanimous in finding defendants guilty before sentencing could begin.

Florida long allowed judges to impose death sentences based on majority jury recommendations. But that changed after 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. 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 Gov. Ron 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.

If the Legislature moves away from a unanimous-jury requirement, the change likely will face a constitutional challenge. Aaron Wayt, who represented the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on Wednesday, pointed to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and said he thinks the proposal would be found unconstitutional.

Ingoglia, however, cited the 2020 Florida Supreme Court decision that said unanimous jury recommendations are not required. He also said advances in DNA technology are a “game changer” that would help prevent the execution of wrongfully convicted people.

Parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims, along with groups such as prosecutors, have supported changing the death-penalty law. But moving away from unanimity has been opposed by groups such as the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Debate and testimony at Wednesday’s meeting reflected the difficulty of the issue for many lawmakers. Committee Chairwoman Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, supported the bill, but acknowledged that, as “a Catholic, this is really hard for me.”

Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Broward County Democrat, said she knows “first-hand the experience of the Parkland shooting and how it not only impacted Parkland but an entire county.” But like Rouson, she expressed concerns about getting rid of the unanimity requirement when people have been wrongfully convicted.

“I just don’t want to take a chance of getting it wrong or being wrong with death being so final with anyone,” Osgood said.

But Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, another Broward County Democrat, supported the bill and said it was a “horrific miscarriage of justice” that Cruz did not receive the death penalty.

“I believe that the horrific miscarriage of justice cannot go on,” Book said.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.