Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, wants to make it easier to execute people. It’s one of the latest signs that he wants to move the law backward not only for his state but for the country, as well, if he takes the White House.
Talking to Florida sheriffs on Monday, DeSantis, a Republican, expressed frustration that a jury didn't want to sentence Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz to death last fall. Because jurors couldn't agree, Cruz was sentenced to life in prison. DeSantis wondered whether it should be enough for “maybe eight out of 12” jurors to vote for death.
Florida actually allowed non-unanimous death sentences not long ago, before U.S. and state Supreme Court rulings led to state legislation requiring unanimity in 2017. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the state Supreme Court has become more pro-capital punishment since then, leaving open the possibility of non-unanimous sentences in the state again. If Florida goes back to non-unanimity, as DeSantis apparently favors, it would join neighboring Alabama as outliers in allowing the practice.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida has had more exonerations from death row than any other state.
Whatever happens in Florida, given his attitude toward the ultimate punishment, it stands to reason that, if DeSantis became president, he’d reignite the federal death penalty machine that restarted during Donald Trump’s tenure after a lengthy hiatus. Recall that the federal government carried out 13 executions in the waning days of the Trump presidency, rushing to do so before Joe Biden took over. The Supreme Court that Trump and the GOP helped create was instrumental in allowing the “spree,” as Justice Sonia Sotomayor called it in a dissent, to go forward.
Biden, meanwhile, has vowed to end the death penalty. Not only has he failed to deliver on that promise, but the Justice Department is also actively pursuing the death penalty in an alleged terrorism case in New York. Following the Trump-era executions, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a moratorium, so no executions have taken place during this administration. But without further executive action, such as granting clemency to people on federal death row, there’s nothing hindering a future president from carrying out another spree.
Leaving alone — for now — the tension in the Biden administration’s stance, recall the president’s campaign position on why he claimed to be against the penalty:
Over 160 individuals who’ve been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated. Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.
Innocence isn’t the only capital punishment issue, but it’s an obvious one. Which brings us back to DeSantis and unanimity. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida has had more exonerations from death row than any other state, including exonerations in cases without unanimity. So while it's understandable to express frustration in the face of unspeakably tragic cases, it's worth remembering that the legal rules we set out aren't only for the guilty and the deserving.