Republican-Dominated Florida Legislature Introduces Bill to Return to Pre-2017 Death Penalty Standards

Florida Senate Chamber via Wikipedia

By Cynthia Hoang-Duong

SPRING HILL, FL – In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Lizette Alvarez, a contributing columnist, reflected on Florida State Senator Blaise Ingoglia’s (R-Spring Hill) introduction of SB 450, a conservative-led bill that will revive the state’s old practices regarding the death penalty.

Alvarez cited the Florida Department of Corrections, which found that there are currently 299 Floridian prisoners on death row.

Based on this data, she highlighted the states’ erroneous history with wrongful convictions of felons. Florida leads the U.S. with 30 exonerations of individuals from death row and 99 executions of convicted murderers since the 1970s.

“The decision to sentence someone to death is profound and, typically, irreversible, leaving no room for error in a criminal justice system where errors abound,” wrote Alvarez.

However, according to the author, accompanied by the Florida House of Representatives’ identical bill, HB 555, the measure is one stride forward in the Republican-dominated legislature and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ agenda to simplify and weaken the state’s death penalty standards.

She outlined the ramifications of the bill, noting that by permitting judges to disregard a jury’s recommendations of life without parole and instead, impose the death penalty, the Florida legislature undermines the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida.

Holding that Florida’s capital sentencing statute violated the Sixth Amendment, the Court in Hurst demanded that former Governor Rick Scott establish a rule that requires the unanimity of the jury for death sentences.

Summarizing the effects of Hurst, Alvarez stated that the court decision raised the standard for capital punishment on the grounds that judges possessed excessive power in cases with the death sentence.

According to the author, the bill is a response to the backlash against Nikolas Cruz’s sentence of life without parole in Nov. 2022. In 2018, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland Florida, 19-year-old Cruz shot 14 students and three staff members.

Alvarez quoted a prepared statement of State Senator Ingoglia in which he said, “This is much-needed reform to ensure that evil scumbags like Nikolas Cruz do not escape with just a life sentence.”

Columnist Alvarez wrote that because three jurors considered the “aggravating factors” that Cruz’s mother heavily consumed alcohol while pregnant and the accused’s mental illness and violence during his youth, a unanimous agreement was not reached. As a result, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Essentially, SB 450 seeks to remedy this result by permitting an 8-4 majority of the jury to impose a death sentence, noted Alvarez.

Emphasizing the “lamentably low bar” of SB 450, the author explained that, although prosecutors must identify an “aggravating factor” to seek capital punishment for the accused, the bill only requires the jury to unanimously agree on at least one — out of 16 — aggravating circumstance that exists beyond a reasonable doubt.

Alvarez argued against this death penalty requirement, emphasizing, “Deciding to execute a human being — no matter how heinous the crime — is a grave matter. It should be the product of deep debate and contemplation.”

Believing that the jury must thoroughly consider mitigating factors such as mental illness and trauma, Alvarez contended that capital punishment sentences must result from the unanimous agreement of a jury because it is a “bedrock value of American justice.”

Despite majority acknowledgment of the risk of wrongful convictions and doubt of crime deterrence, she wrote, the Pew Research Center found that approximately two-thirds of Americans favor capital punishment for homicide cases because of its alleged fairness or justice and vengeance for the victims’ families.

The author referenced the 2020 decision of State v. Pole, in which the Court concluded that capital punishment sentences did not require a unanimous jury’s recommendation under Hurst. Thus, coupled with the support of Governor DeSantis, both Florida state chambers, and a conservative Florida Supreme Court, Alvarez expects that the bill will pass.

Concerned with the implications of this measure, Alvarez said, “Death sentences are sanctioned by the government. We, the people, are the jurors, the final arbiters of that crushing, irreversible decision. And no one should be comfortable with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we got it wrong.”

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