Many inmates on death row thought they were going to avoid the death penalty when capital punishment laws in Florida changed in 2016. Now, a new Florida law questions whether or not these people will be spared from death.
What has changed with death penalty laws, and why are so many lives up in the air?
A Brief Timeline of the Death Penalty in Florida
Florida’s approach to capital punishment has experienced many changes over the past decade. Laws setting the threshold for when the death penalty can be used have flip-flopped, leading to many questions for those living on death row.
Here is a brief look at the changes since 2015, based on reporting by the Tampa Bay Times.
In 2015, the American Bar Association (ABA) sent a message urging all states to change their death penalty requirements. They requested that all jurisdictions require a unanimous jury recommendation of death before imposing the death penalty.
In Florida at that time, a person could be sentenced to death by a 7-5 jury vote.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Hurst v. Florida and ruled that Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional. That year, the Florida Supreme Court heard the case Hurst v. State and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The ruling of the Florida case said unanimous jury recommendations were required in death penalty cases.
Based on Florida’s Supreme Court findings, Florida state legislature passed a law requiring unanimous jury recommendations in death penalty cases.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed justices to the Florida Supreme Court who established a conservative majority. In 2020, the court reversed the ruling on the death penalty and said unanimous jury recommendations were not necessary.
In October 2022, Nikolas Cruz, responsible for the death of 17 people at Parkland High School, plead guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. In a controversial ruling, the jurors voted 9-3 to sentence Cruz to the death penalty. Without a unanimous vote, Cruz avoided the death penalty and was later sentenced to life in prison.
In April 2023, Florida’s law that required a unanimous jury requirement for the death penalty was changed again. Florida legislators passed a new law that requires only an 8-4 jury vote to sentence a person to death.
Florida now has the lowest threshold for the death sentence in the country. Alabama is the only other state that does not require a unanimous jury vote. The state requires a 10-2 jury vote.
Changing Laws Lead to Problems
Florida’s flip-flopping over death penalty requirements has caused a lot of problems in the justice system.
When the law changed to require a unanimous vote for the death penalty in 2017, many death row inmates challenged the outcomes of their earlier cases and began to seek resentencing proceedings.
Justices ordered resentencing for about 150 death row inmates who were sentenced based on recommendations by non-unanimous juries. About 90 resentencing proceedings were completed prior to April 2023. More than three-fourths of the proceedings resulted in life sentences, with prosecutors often not asking for the death penalty in the resentencing cases, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
When the law changed in 2023, about five dozen resentencing cases were still pending, and it left questions as to what to do with these cases.
The Florida legal system now needs to determine whether or not resentenced cases stand and what should happen to cases that are still pending.
“Undoubtedly, the new statute will plunge Florida’s death-penalty system into further instability and chaos,” said Maria DiLiberato, executive director of Floridians for Alternative to the Death Penalty.
The changes also have concerned anti-capital punishment advocates who say changes in laws could lead to more innocent people being sent to death.
Florida leads the nation with the most death row exonerations. Twenty-nine death row inmates have been exonerated since the 1970s, and most of the exonerated were sent to death row without a unanimous jury vote, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Protect Your Rights
The legal system is complex and complicated. Even if your case reaches a conclusion, changing laws and regulations may impact the outcome of your case. If you are facing or have been convicted of a crime, make sure you have an attorney who can guide you through changing legalities.