Amy Beth Bennett/AP
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Not long ago, Florida school gunman Nikolas Cruz was facing a near-certain death sentence for the murders of 17 people in Parkland, even though his jury couldn’t agree on unanimity on his fate.
Until 2016, Florida law allowed trial judges to impose a death sentence if a majority of jurors agreed. With a 9-to-3 vote Thursday in favor of Cruz’s execution, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer likely would have sent him to death row for the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Now, however, a vote of less than 12 to 0 means an automatic life sentence without parole – a norm the Stoneman Douglas families and the head of the state’s attorneys’ association want to change. That would again put Florida in a distinct minority among the 27 states that still have the death penalty where nearly all require unanimity from juries.
Ed Brodsky, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the Legislature next year will consider changing the law it passed after two court rulings overturned the old law.
“When there is an overwhelming majority and a feeling about what the ultimate sentence should be, should a minority voice be able to dominate and deflect justice?” said Brodsky, the elected prosecutor for Sarasota County and its neighbors.
Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference on Friday criticized the sentence, but did not specify what changes he would support.
“We need to make reforms to better serve victims of crime and the families of victims of crime and not always bend over backwards to do whatever we need for perpetrators,” DeSantis said.
Cruz, 24 years old, pleaded guilty a year ago to the murder of 14 Stoneman Douglas students and three staff members on February 14, 2018. This left the jury of seven men and five women to decide solely whether he would be sentenced to death or life without parole.
The three-month trial included gruesome indictment videos, photos and testimony about Cruz’s murders. This was followed by defense testimony about her birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy which witnesses say created a brain-damaged person who began to display erratic, bizarre and violent behavior. at the age of 2 years.
After seven hours of deliberation, jurors announced Thursday that they unanimously agreed on the prosecution’s argument for aggravating factors such as multiple deaths and Cruz’s planning, but not on the issue. whether these outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Scherer will impose the life sentence on Cruz on November 1.
“If this wasn’t the most perfect death penalty case, then why do we have the death penalty?” said Linda Beigel Schulman, mother of slain teacher Scott Beigel.
But some defense lawyers and capital punishment experts said it was no surprise jurors unanimously disagreed. Only 18 death sentences were handed down nationwide last year, including two in Florida.
The latest Gallup poll showed that 54% of Americans favored the death penalty, up from 80% in the mid-1990s. And although Cruz’s jurors all said they could vote for the death penalty they were chosen, they didn’t say they supported her.
“At first glance, you think, ‘My God, how can you not vote for the death penalty?’ said Richard Escobar, a Tampa defense attorney and former prosecutor. He tried momentous cases in both roles. “But you have to think and say to yourself, ‘If that person was really mentally ill, you shouldn’t impose the death penalty because they got this mental illness through no fault of their own.'”
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the Cruz case had a lot in common with the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people died. In that case, 11 jurors voted for death while one dissented based on testimony about the shooter’s mental illness. It meant a life sentence.
“It’s not about whether the murder warrants the death penalty. (Cruz) is clearly the type of case in which a jury could reasonably impose the death penalty,” Dunham said. “The question is ‘Does the defendant deserve the death penalty?'”
Florida’s law allowing for a majority jury vote had been in place for decades before it was struck down, but it was an outlier. Almost all death row states have required unanimity throughout these years or adopted it. Alabama allows a death sentence after a 10-2 vote. Missouri and Indiana allow the judge to decide if jurors unanimously agree that aggravating circumstances exist but cannot agree on a sentence.
Then in 2016, by a vote of 8 to 1, the United States Supreme Court rejected the Florida law, saying the judge had too much weight in the decision.
The Legislature passed a bill requiring a 10-2 jury recommendation, but the state Supreme Court struck it down. In 2017, the law was changed to require a unanimous jury.
Three years later, however, DeSantis, a Republican, replaced three retired Florida judges with more conservative jurists, and the state court overturned the earlier decision. He said a death recommendation no longer needed to be unanimous, but lawmakers during three annual sessions did not change the law unanimously. DeSantis never pushed them.
David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, also doesn’t think DeSantis and the Legislature will make unanimous changes next year — that would risk the U.S. Supreme Court overturning it. state law again.
“This ship has sailed,” he said.
But will Cruz’s conviction make Florida prosecutors less likely to seek the death penalty?
Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami who previously handled death penalty appeals, doesn’t think so.
“It might even strengthen their resolve,” he said.
Still, he said, it’s hard to make general predictions about the impact that edge cases like Cruz will have. No American mass shooter who killed as many or more than Cruz has ever been tried – nine were killed by themselves or by police during or immediately after their attack. A 10th is awaiting trial in Texas.
On Cruz’s side, it’s rare for lawyers to have so much documentation to back up their extenuating circumstances. The Broward public defender’s office also had better lawyers to assign to Cruz’s case and more money for investigations than their counterparts in smaller jurisdictions, he said.
In those counties, “the attenuation would be a witness and it would be mom saying, ‘He was always a troubled kid,'” Trocino said.