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NEW YORK – Catholic organizations have called a new Florida law that ends the unanimous jury requirement in death penalty sentencing “stunning” and a “thinly veiled attack on human life,” while the state’s governor and potential 2024 presidential contender argues the law allows proper justice to be served.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill April 20 that allows capital punishment in Florida with a jury recommendation of at least 8-4 in favor of the death sentence, replacing the state’s previous unanimous requirement for such cases.
In response, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the anti-capital punishment organization Catholic Mobilizing Network, called the move deeply disturbing.
“SB 450 … will cause chaos and needless suffering for victims’ families, people on death row, and current and future capital defendants,” Murphy said in a statement. “In no uncertain terms, DeSantis has signed into law a thinly veiled attack on human life.”
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that it’s “stunning” that DeSantis and the Florida legislature would reverse the “common-sense” law from just six years ago that required an unanimous agreement from a jury to sentence someone to death.
The bill received bipartisan support from the Florida legislature.
DeSantis, a Republican, has advocated for the legislation ever since a divided jury voted 9-3 last October in the case of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, sparing him from the death penalty. The verdict angered victims’ families, as Cruz instead received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Cruz killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018. He eventually pleaded guilty to 17 murder charges for the people he killed, and 17 attempted murder charges for the people he injured.
DeSantis signed the new law in a private ceremony with families of Parkland victims.
“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,” DeSantis said in a statement. “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.”
The law makes Florida one of three states out of the 27 that impose the death penalty that do not require unanimity for a death sentence. Alabama allows a 10-2 decision. Missouri and Indiana leave the decision to a judge where there is a divided jury.
Murphy argues the new law will make Florida’s shaky history with capital punishment worse: “Racial bias and wrongful conviction are rampant in Florida’s death penalty. Both will almost certainly be exacerbated with the allowance of non-unanimous death sentencing,” she said.
Since 1973, Florida has exonerated 30 people on death row, the most in the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research organization that opposes capital punishment. Texas is second with 16 such exonerations.
Murphy also alleges political motives behind DeSantis’ decision, especially considering up until this past February Florida went almost four years without an execution.
“It is revealing that Governor DeSantis is now suddenly pushing full-force to expand Florida’s death penalty, just as he’s expected to formally announce a presidential bid,” Murphy said. “The death penalty should not be used to score political points. Human beings should not be used as political pawns — including human beings on death row.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg