Florida’s new death penalty law sparks debate
In a significant shift in legislative policy, Governor Ron DeSantis last month ratified a bill altering the sentencing requirements for capital punishment in Florida, sparking substantial legal debate.
The newly enacted law stipulates that a majority of eight jurors, as opposed to a previous unanimous agreement, is now sufficient to sentence an individual to death. This change in jurisprudence has quickly been applied, even to ongoing cases.
One particular instance where this law has been invoked is by Circuit Judge Martin Fein of Broward County. In a move that has attracted both scrutiny and critique, Judge Fein ruled that the newly minted death penalty law applies retroactively to crimes committed prior to the law’s passage. His focus is on a 2016 murder case, which is still in the jury selection phase.
Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami, has expressed concern over the potential ramifications of Judge Fein’s ruling. “It appears that the state petitioned the judge to apply the new statute retroactively, and the judge ruled in the state’s favor,” Trocino explained.
Professor Trocino anticipates that this unprecedented application of the law will face robust challenges. “This particular issue is bound to generate extensive litigation, which could ultimately become a significant burden on Florida taxpayers,” warned Trocino.
The history of Florida’s death penalty is notably complex, with recent attention on the case of Nikolas Cruz, who escaped a death sentence due to the jury’s inability to reach a unanimous agreement.
During an exclusive debate in October 2022, Governor DeSantis expressed his firm stance on the death penalty in response to a query about Cruz’s sentencing. “When someone murders 17 innocent people in cold blood, there is no other punishment commensurate with the gravity of that crime,” stated DeSantis.
Nonetheless, Trocino reassures that Cruz’s sentence will remain unaffected, as it is now finalized and beyond challenge. “That conviction and sentence are final and untouchable. The window for challenging it has long since closed,” Trocino clarified.
In April, Governor DeSantis signed Senate Bill 450 into law, requiring only an 8-4 majority to impose a death sentence. Trocino emphasizes that whether this law is applicable retroactively will be a matter for the courts to decide. “In some circumstances, it can apply, and in others, it cannot. This will need to be litigated in court,” he explained.
As it stands, Judge Fein’s ruling applies solely within his courtroom. Should the verdict of the trial face disagreement from the losing party, an appeal would need to be filed with the appellate court. In case of continued disagreement over the law’s application, the issue could potentially reach the Florida Supreme Court, a process which Trocino believes could take years to resolve.