On April 20th, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law allowing for the imposition of the death penalty when the jury recommends death by a vote of 8-4. Additionally, Governor DeSantis, on May 1st, signed a bill expanding capital punishment in the state. This law allows for the death penalty to be imposed for certain sexual crimes committed against children, even if the victim does not die, despite existing Supreme Court precedent limiting the death penalty to offenses that intentionally cause the victim’s death. This law also utilizes the 8-4 standard.
These reforms come after Florida has already executed three people in the past three months, 56-year-old Louis Gaskin, 59-year-old Donald Dillbeck, and 56-year-old Darryl Barwick—the state’s first executions since 2019. As DeSantis pushes forward executions and expands the scope of the death penalty, he is also eyeing a presidential run.
With the new non-unanimity law, Florida joins Alabama as the only states to allow for a sentence of death without a jury’s unanimous recommendation. While Alabama currently allows for death sentences to be imposed after a jury’s nonunanimous recommendation, it requires a jury vote of at least 10-2 .
The Florida non-unanimity law comes after a Broward County jury failed to reach a consensus on the death penalty for Nicholas Cruz, who took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. For some, the outcome of this case pointed out concerns of the arbitrariness of the application of the death penalty in America. Commentators have observed that far less aggravated crimes—such as in the case of felony murder, where the defendant may have no intention to cause death or even be directly involved in the killing—often result in a death sentence, while several notable mass killers have received life.
Cruz’s sentence could also reflect changing attitudes about the death penalty. A Gallup poll from 2019 found 60% of Americans prefer a penalty of life imprisonment compared to just 36% who prefer a penalty of death for murder. This marked the first time that a majority of Americans preferred life imprisonment to the death penalty in the history of this poll, which has been administered every three years since 1986.
In every state where capital punishment is legal, jurors can only serve on a capital jury if they are “death qualified,” which requires the juror to certify that he or she can vote for a sentence of death. Research shows that this death-qualification process prevents substantial segments of American society from serving on juries in capital cases. The process of death qualification is especially likely to exclude women, Black people, other people of color, and Catholics. Other research provides evidence that death-qualified juries are more likely to convict the defendant, less likely to accept an insanity defense, less willing to consider mitigating factors, and more likely to impose harsh sentences overall.