Florida’s Single-Juror-Veto Law Defeats Justice in Parkland Case

For the sentencing phase of capital cases, some states have true unanimous verdict laws. The jury must deliberate until it is unanimous one way or the other, just as they do in the guilt phase. If they are truly hung, the penalty trial is done over before another jury. California and Arizona have true unanimity laws.

Unfortunately, when Florida rewrote its sentencing law in the wake of a Supreme Court decision throwing out the old one, the Legislature unwisely chose a single-juror-veto law. In this system, if the jury votes 11-1 for the death penalty, the view of the one prevails over the view of the eleven, and the defendant gets a life sentence. That system introduces needless arbitrariness into sentencing, as the luck of getting one juror who has hard-core anti-death-penalty views (and possibly lied on voir dire) or who is willing to accept claimed mitigation that most people reject will result in a life sentence for one defendant under circumstances where others will be sentenced to death.

Strangely, Florida’s prosecutors didn’t object at the time this legislation was passing. I tried to warn them, but they didn’t listen. This is the result:

Jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CBS News Miami that the verdict came down to a juror who believed Cruz was mentally ill and that because of that, he shouldn’t receive the death penalty. Mr. Thomas said one juror was a “hard no” and two others ended up voting that way as well, adding that he was unhappy with the decision.

Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa Alhadeff was killed in the shooting, said in remarks to reporters after the verdict was delivered, “I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome.” Her husband, Ilan Alhadeff, added, “I’m disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded and not give the death penalty. What do we have the death penalty for?”

So it was 9-3 in the end. In California or Arizona, the case would be headed for a retrial. In Florida, because of a bad choice by its Legislature, this mass murderer is permanently off the hook.

Floridians who, like the Alhadeffs, are disgusted with this system should ask every candidate for the Legislature if they will support replacing the single-juror-veto law with a true unanimity law like Arizona’s. If they say no or will not give a straight answer, vote them out.

2 Responses

  1. Ron Matthias says:

    The Eighth Amendment requires that the jury’s choice between imposing a death sentence or the lesser sentence of life imprisonment not be influenced by “arbitrariness.” Although many safeguards exist to ensure that death verdicts are the product of principled evaluation rather than whim or caprice, no safeguards are specifically directed toward ensuring that the alternative verdict—life imprisonment—is of similar provenance. Indeed, the laws of some states—such as the single-juror-veto rule in Florida—virtually ensure that some life-sentence verdicts will be the product of mere fortuity. California’s rule allowing a juror’s “lingering” (i.e., necessarily *non*-reasonable) doubts about the murderer’s guilt to affect the choice of verdict is to similar effect. But when the choice is, as in this context, binary, and the objective is to guarantee *systemwide* rationality and reliability, arbitrariness cannot logically be disparaged as a bug to be eliminated as to one choice and a feature to be promoted when considering its only alternative.

  2. John Campbell says:

    I would only add this. The Florida Supreme Court erroneously (or intentionally) interpreted U S Supreme Court decisions as requiring a unanimous jury decision for both guilt and penalty phases. The Florida legislature had 2 prior capital punishment statutes invalidated by Florida’s SC, so at the last minute to avoid more time with no death sentence available, the Legislature wrote a law which conformed to the state Court’s precedence. On the same day DeSantis was sworn in, 5 Florida Supreme Court justices – including those appointed by a series of liberal governors – term limited out, leaving DeSantis with 5 vacancies. He remade the Court with a series of conservative appointees. The now more conservative state Supreme Court has since then decided that the previous decision requiring a unanimous verdict in the penalty phase was mistakenly decided and reversed it. However, the statute remains, and the Court’s decision had no effect in that. The State legislature has had a year or more to fix this, and to their detriment, they have not done so. Hopefully, this will be fixed in 2023.