FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — It wasn’t long ago that Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz would have considered a near-certain death sentence for murdering 17 people in Parkland, even if his jury couldn’t agree unanimously on his fate.
Until 2016, Florida law allowed judges in the courts to impose a death sentence if a majority of jurors agreed. Of a 9-3 vote Thursday in support of Cruz’s execution, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer would likely have sent him to death row for the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Now, however, a vote of anything less than 12-0 automatically means life in prison without parole — a norm the Stoneman Douglas families and the head of the Prosecutor’s Association want to change. That would again put Florida in a clear minority among the 27 states that still have the death penalty, where nearly all require unanimity from the jurors.
Ed Brodsky, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, believes the legislature will consider amending the passed law next year after a few court decisions rejected the old law.
“If there is an overwhelming majority and sentiment about what the ultimate punishment should be, should one minority vote be able to dominate and hijack the law?” said Brodsky, the elected state attorney for Sarasota County and its neighbors.
Governor Ron DeSantis criticized the sentence in a news conference on Friday, but declined to specify what changes he would support.
“We need to make some reforms to better serve crime victims and the families of crime victims and not always sit back and do whatever it takes for the perpetrators of crimes,” DeSantis said.
cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago until the murder of 14 Stoneman Douglas students and three employees On February 14, 2018. That left it up to the jury of seven men and five women to decide alone whether he should be sentenced to death or life without parole.
The three-month trial included gruesome prosecution videos, photos, and testimony about Cruz’s murders. That was followed by a statement of defense about his biological mother heavy drinking during pregnancy which witnesses say created a person with brain damage who started exhibiting erratic, bizarre and violent behavior at the age of 2 years.
After seven hours of deliberation, the jurors announced Thursday that they unanimously agreed with the prosecution’s argument for aggravating factors such as the multiple deaths and Cruz’s planning, but not whether they would outweigh the extenuating circumstances. Scherer will hand out Cruz’s life sentence on Nov. 1.
“If this wasn’t the most perfect death penalty case, why do we have the death penalty?” said Linda Beigel Schulman, the mother of murdered teacher Scott Beigel.
But some lawyers and experts on the death penalty said it was not surprising that the jurors could not agree unanimously. Last year, just 18 death sentences were handed down across the country, two of them in Florida.
The latest Gallup poll found that 54% of Americans support the death penalty, up from 80% in the mid-1990s. And while Cruz’s jurors all said they could vote for the death penalty if elected, they didn’t say they supported it.
“At first glance, you think to yourself, ‘My God, how can you not vote for the death penalty?'” said Richard Escobar, a Tampa attorney and former prosecutor. He has tried capital cases in both roles. “But you have to think and think to yourself, ‘If this person was really mentally ill, you shouldn’t be getting the death penalty because they got that mental illness through no fault of their own.'”
Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the Cruz case has much in common with the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people died. In that case, 11 jurors voted to die, while one disagreed based on testimony about the shooter’s mental illness. That meant a life sentence.
“It’s not about whether the murder justifies the death penalty. (Cruz) is clearly the kind of case where a jury can reasonably impose the death penalty,” Dunham said. “The question is ‘Does the suspect deserve the death penalty?'”
Florida’s law that allowed a majority of the jury had been in effect for decades before it was quashed, but it was an outlier. Virtually all death penalty states required or approved unanimity during those years. Alabama allows a death sentence after a 10-2 vote. Missouri and Indiana let the judge decide whether the jury unanimously agrees on the aggravating circumstances, but can’t agree on a sentence.
Then, in 2016, with 8-1 votes, the US Supreme Court rejected Florida law, say 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 overturned it. In 2017, the law was amended to require a unanimous jury.
Three years later, however, DeSantis, a Republican, replaced three outgoing Florida judges with more conservative lawyers and the state court. revoke the previous decision. It said a death recommendation no longer needed to be unanimous, but lawmakers have not changed the law back from unanimous vote through three annual sessions. DeSantis never pushed them.
David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former district attorney, also doesn’t think DeSantis and the legislature will change the unanimity next year — that would risk the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the state law again.
“That ship has sailed,” he said.
But will Cruz’s verdict make Florida prosecutors less likely to seek the death penalty?
Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami who has previously handled appeals against the death penalty, doesn’t think so.
“It could even harden their resolve,” he said.
Still, he said, it’s difficult to make broad predictions about the impact fringe cases like Cruz will have. No US mass shooter who killed as many or more than Cruz had ever been brought to justice – nine were killed by themselves or the police during their attack or immediately afterwards. A 10th is awaiting trial in Texas.
On Cruz’s side, it’s rare for attorneys to have so much documentation supporting their extenuating circumstances. Broward’s public defender’s office also had better quality attorneys to allocate to Cruz’s case and more money for investigations than their counterparts in smaller jurisdictions typically do, he said.
In those counties, “softening would be a witness and it would be mommy saying, ‘He was always a kid with problems,'” Trocino said.
Gresko reported from Washington, DC. Farrington reported from Tallahassee, Florida. AP reporter Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee contributed to this report.
JOIN THE CALL