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Florida Senators back proposal that would eliminate a unanimous jury for death sentences

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz capital murder trial
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill gives her closing argument in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

After Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison, the Florida Senate began moving forward with a proposal that would eliminate a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences can be imposed.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a bill (SB 450) that would allow judges to sentence defendants to death based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors.

The issue emerged after a Broward County jury in October did not unanimously recommend death for Cruz, who murdered 17 students and faculty members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. A judge sentenced Cruz to life in prison.

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died in the school shooting, said she was the victim of a “cold, cruel, heinous killer.”

“She was failed by the system that was supposed to protect her, and then sadly, this fall, we saw that she was failed by the justice system,” Montalto told the Senate committee.

The committee voted 6-2 to approve the bill, sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, opposed it.

Polsky’s district includes Parkland, but she pointed to changes that the committee made Monday in the bill and the possibility that it will be revised again. She described it as “not ready for prime time.”

“I do agree that that (Cruz case) is when the death penalty should have been found,” Polsky said. “But I don’t agree that this bill, that is not ready, is the answer.”

The committee’s vote came a day before the start of the 60-day legislative session. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is slated to take up its version of the bill (HB 555) on Tuesday.