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Friday, March 31, 2023

Parkland Shooter’s Life Sentence Could Bring Changes to Florida Law

Not so long ago, Nikolas Cruz, the Florida school shooter who killed 17 people in Parkland, would have been very likely to get the death penalty, even if his jury could not agree on what to do with him.

Prior to 2016, Florida law permitted trial judges to sentence a defendant to death if a majority of the jury recommended it. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer likely would have ordered Cruz to Death Row for the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting if the vote on Thursday, 9-3, had supported Cruz’s execution.

The Stoneman Douglas family and the president of the state’s prosecutors organization seek to amend the current rule, which states that a vote of less than 12-0 automatically results in a life sentence without the possibility of release. That would once more place Florida in a glaring minority among the 27 states that currently impose the death sentence, since nearly every one requires unanimous verdicts from the jury.

Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association President Ed Brodsky predicts that the Legislature will look at amending the bill it approved this year after it was overturned by two court judgments the previous year.

Should one minority voice be allowed to dominate and tamper with justice when there is a clear majority opinion on what the appropriate punishment should be? Brodsky, the county’s and its surrounding areas’ elected state attorney, stated.

At a news conference on Friday, Governor Ron DeSantis denounced the sentence but did not say what revisions he would support.

DeSantis stated, “We need to make some changes to be better serving victims of crimes and the families of victims of crimes and not always bend over backwards to do whatever we can for the offenders of crimes.

Cruz, 24, admitted culpability to the February 14, 2018, killings of 14 Stoneman Douglas students and three staff members. The only issue left for the seven-member, five-member jury to resolve was whether to condemn him to death or life in prison without the possibility of release.

The three-month trial featured graphic images, recordings, and evidence from the prosecution detailing Cruz’s killings. It was then followed by defense testimony on how witnesses said that his biological mother’s frequent drinking throughout her pregnancy caused brain damage in the child, who at age two started acting erratically, bizarrely, and violently.

After seven hours of deliberations, the jury declared on Thursday that they all agreed with the prosecution’s assertion that there were aggravating circumstances—such as the numerous killings and Cruz’s planning—but not on whether those circumstances outweighed the mitigating ones. Cruz will be given a life sentence on Nov. 1 by Scherer.

“Why do we even have the death penalty if this wasn’t the most ideal death penalty case?” remarked Scott Beigel’s mother Linda Schulman, who was also a teacher.

However, several defense lawyers and authorities on the death penalty asserted that it wasn’t unexpected that the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous decision. In the whole country, just 18 death sentences were imposed in 2017—two of them in Florida.

The death penalty is supported by 54% of Americans, down from 80% in the mid-1990s, according to the most recent Gallup Poll. The Cruz jury members didn’t declare they supported the death sentence, even though they all claimed they could vote in favor of it if they were selected.

According to Richard Escobar, a Tampa defense lawyer and former prosecutor, “at first impression, you say to yourself, ‘My God, how can you not vote for the death penalty?'” In both capacities, he has tried capital cases. But you need to pause and ask yourself, “If this individual was genuinely mentally sick, you shouldn’t execute them since they didn’t cause that mental illness,”

The Cruz case, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, has many similarities to the 2012 massacre at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, which left 12 people dead. In that instance, 11 jurors voted in favor of execution, but one abstained due to evidence of the shooter’s mental instability. That implied a death penalty.

“The issue is not whether the murder justifies the death punishment. It seems evident that (Cruz) is the kind of case where a jury may justifiably inflict the death punishment, “Dunham said. “Does the defendant deserve to be executed? is the pertinent question.

Before it was changed, Florida’s legislation that permitted a majority jury vote had been in effect for many years, but it was an exception. During those years, almost all states with the death penalty either adopted it or required unanimity. Alabama votes 10-2 to approve the death penalty. If all of the jurors in Missouri and Indiana concur that the aggravating circumstances exist but cannot agree on a punishment, the judge may make the decision.

Then, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Florida’s statute by an 8-1 margin, ruling that the judge had wielded too much influence.

A law mandating a 10-2 jury recommendation was enacted by the Legislature, but the state Supreme Court struck it down. The statute was modified in 2017 to call for a unanimous jury.

But three years later, Republican DeSantis appointed more conservative judges to replace three retiring Florida justices, and the state court overturned the prior judgment. It said that a death recommendation did not need to be unanimous any more, but lawmakers had not modified the statute to need unanimity once again during three yearly sessions. DeSantis never tried to push them.

DeSantis and the Legislature aren’t likely to modify unanimity next year either, said to Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor David S. Weinstein, since doing so would put the state statute at risk of being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court once more.

He declared, “That ship has sailed.”

Will Florida prosecutors be less inclined to seek the death penalty as a result of the Cruz sentence, though?

Professor of law at the University of Miami Craig Trocino, who has experience handling death sentence appeals, disagrees.

It could even make them more determined, he suggested.

However, he acknowledged that it is challenging to make generalizations about the effects that outliers like Cruz would have. Nine people were murdered by themselves or police either during their assault or just after; no American mass shooter who killed as many or more than Cruz had ever gone to trial. In Texas, a 10th person is awaiting trial.

It is unusual for attorneys to have as much evidence to support their mitigating circumstances as Cruz’s team has. He said that compared to their counterparts in smaller jurisdictions, the Broward public defender’s office had more funding for investigations and higher caliber attorneys to be assigned to Cruz’s case.

According to Trocino, mitigation in certain counties “would be one witness and it would be mother saying, ‘He was always a problematic kid'”.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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