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Parkland case leads to new Florida death penalty law

On Behalf of | Jun 16, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Florida is among the 23 states that still allow the death penalty for certain criminal offenses. In potential death penalty cases, the recommended sentence is decided by the jury separately from the verdict. 

Up until very recently, jurors had to vote unanimously in favor of a death penalty recommendation for a defendant. That changed in April with a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that immediately took effect. Now only 8 out of 12 jurors have to agree that a defendant should be sentenced to death.

The legislation, which received some rare bipartisan support, was spurred by the case of the young man who killed 17 people – mostly students — and injured many others at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland five years ago. He was spared the death penalty because only nine jurors voted for it.

Unanimous death penalty recommendation hadn’t been in place for long

Florida only implemented the requirement of a unanimous vote for the death penalty in 2017. That was shortly after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the current system, where only a majority of voters had to agree to it, was unconstitutional.

Note that even with the new law, jurors still have to agree unanimously that a defendant is guilty. They further have to unanimously agree that there’s at least one aggravating factor that warrants considering a sentence of death. However, Florida now requires a smaller percentage of the jury to agree on the death penalty than any other state. Most states with the death penalty require unanimity in the sentencing recommendation.

Those who fought this recent change in the law pointed to the fact that Florida has the highest rate of death row inmates in the country who are eventually exonerated for their crimes.

The judge isn’t required to accept the jury’s recommendation

Of course, a jury recommendation for the death penalty is just that. The judge in the case has the authority to change that to life in prison, but they must provide a written explanation for their reasoning.

This new law raises the stakes for anyone facing a criminal charge that could potentially qualify for a death sentence. Experienced legal guidance is required throughout the process to work to present a defense or lessen the charge so that things don’t get to that point.