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Florida is poised to change the way it imposes the death sentence in trials

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During a two-day hearing that starts this morning, a Florida judge hands down a life sentence to the gunman who killed 17 people at a Parkland high school. The jury rejected the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz. That decision triggered outrage among families of the victims. And Florida is now likely to change the way it sentences defendants to death. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Over the three months of the trial, defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed on one thing - the murders Nikolas Cruz committed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 were horrific. Cruz, a former student at the school, pleaded guilty to killing 14 students and three adults with an AR-15-style rifle and wounding 17 others. The defense argued that because of his mother's alcohol and drug abuse when she was pregnant with him, Cruz is mentally impaired and never received proper diagnosis or treatment. That argument convinced at least one juror Cruz should receive a sentence of life in prison without parole. Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was one of those killed, said Cruz should have received the death penalty.

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FRED GUTTENBERG: I don't know how this jury came to the conclusions that they did today, but 17 families did not receive justice.

ALLEN: It's a view shared by families of the other victims and others who followed the trial, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's running for reelection and spoke at a recent gubernatorial debate.

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RON DESANTIS: I think he deserved the ultimate punishment. When you murder in cold blood 17 innocent people, there's no other punishment that meets the gravity of that crime. And to have one juror holdout on that was a travesty. So, yes, I'm going to ask the Florida legislature to amend that statute.

ALLEN: Until 2016, Florida only required a vote by a majority of jurors - as few as seven - to recommend a sentence of death. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing system, lawmakers began requiring the approval of 10 jurors for a death sentence. The Florida Supreme Court later said the jury decision for death must be unanimous, and the legislature complied. Three years later, though, a new conservative Florida Supreme Court, with members appointed by DeSantis, reversed that earlier decision and said a unanimous verdict was no longer required. But since then, the legislature hasn't taken any action. Stephen Harper, a longtime public defender in capital cases and professor emeritus at Florida International University, expects that because of the Cruz trial, the state will now return to that earlier standard.

STEPHEN HARPER: If you didn't get 10 jurors recommending death, then it was a life sentence. My guess is that that's what the governor would actually advocate, to go back to what the legislature had previously set as the limit.

ALLEN: The verdict of life in prison for the person responsible for a mass shooting, while unpopular with many, is not without precedent. In 2015, a jury in Colorado handed a similar sentence to the person who killed 12 people and injured dozens more in a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says in both cases, mental illness was raised as a mitigating factor.

ROBERT DUNHAM: In these really, really horrific murders, you are going to see very significant mitigating evidence, and it is an indication that the system did what it is supposed to do.

ALLEN: Currently, there's just one state, Alabama, where the vote of a majority of jurors is all that's required for a death sentence. In the federal system and every other state where jurors determine the sentence, a unanimous verdict is required. Abandoning the requirement for a unanimous jury verdict for capital punishment would once again make Florida an outlier and, according to Durham, make it more likely innocent people will receive the death penalty. Florida has had more people on death row exonerated than any other state. And the reason, he maintains, is that for decades, it didn't require jury unanimity. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.