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Lawmakers back lower threshold in death penalty cases


TALLAHASSEE — As the state carries out the death penalty again after a more than three-year pause, a Florida House panel Wednesday supported lowering a threshold for sentencing defendants to death.

The House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee voted 8-6 to approve a bill (HB 555) that would eliminate a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences can be imposed. Under the bill, judges would sentence people to death based on recommendations of eight of 12 jurors.

The bill and a similar Senate measure (SB 450) would undo a 2017 law that required unanimous jury recommendations. The issue has re-emerged after Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison last year after a jury was not unanimous in recommending death.

Bill supporters pointed to the Cruz case Wednesday, with Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, saying lawmakers have a “unique opportunity to address a miscarriage of justice.” Cruz killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.

“This is the case that brought this flawed policy to the forefront that shocked the conscience of Floridians, of Americans nationwide, and certainly it requires our attention to get it right,” bill sponsor Berny Jacques, a Seminole Republican and attorney, said.

But Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, D-Ocoee, pointed to numerous Death Row inmates who have been exonerated and said continuing the unanimous jury-recommendation requirement is needed.

“Death is final,” Bracy Davis said. “There are no do-overs. Why would we not want to be as sure as we possibly can, as right as we possibly can be?”

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