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Why Ron DeSantis wants to make Florida America’s leading death penalty state

Ron DeSantis
AP Photo/Marta Lavandier
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Miami.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has a death penalty secret, and he is determined to ensure that it doesn’t derail his anticipated presidential bid. Despite his longstanding tough-on-crime talk, the governor has signed only three death warrants since he took office four years ago. This is a paltry number for a Republican politician in a state long known for its enthusiastic embrace of capital punishment.

According to a report in Florida Politics, “His immediate predecessor, Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. Senator, approved more executions than any other governor in Florida history — 28 in eight years. The last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, approved 18 executions from 1991 to 1998.”

DeSantis’s spokesperson blames the slow pace of executions on the COVID-19 emergency, but that explanation will not play well with voters in Republican presidential primaries.

Enter a plan DeSantis announced at the end of last month that would eliminate the requirement for jury unanimity and help make Florida this nation’s leading death penalty state. As DeSantis gears up for a possible presidential bid, this plan may help fend off criticisms of his death penalty record. It also allows him to add pro-death penalty activism to his culture war credentials.

DeSantis already has made political hay by scapegoating transgender people, and riling people up over Critical Race Theory. He has even proposed legislation to prohibit what he calls “woke banks” from discriminating against customers for their religious, political or social beliefs, and he proudly proclaimed that “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

Now he is turning his sights to the death penalty.

Last month, DeSantis used two speeches — one at Miami’s Police Benevolent Association and the other at Florida Sheriff’s Association — to add another plank to his culture war platform: In those speeches he pledged to expand the range of crimes for which a death sentence can be imposed in Florida and also make it easier for juries impose such sentences in all capital cases.

Florida trails only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia (which abolished the death penalty in 2021) in the number of people executed in the last half-century, and it has 323 inmates on its death row, second only to California (which had 690).

In 2015, when DeSantis was a member of Congress, he co-sponsored legislation to make killing, or attempting to kill, a police officer or first responder a capital crime.

Three years later, during the Republican gubernatorial primary, he attacked the liberal majority on the Florida Supreme Court for overturning the death sentence of an inmate convicted of  the  sexual assault and murder of an 11-year-old girl for what DeSantis called a “technicality.”

In March, 2019, after taking office as governor, he endorsed the death penalty “for the most serious offenses.” And in 2022, the governor signed a new death penalty secrecy act to conceal the identities of companies that produce and distribute lethal injection drugs.

During last month’s speech to the Police Benevolent Association, DeSantis promised a renewed focus on capital punishment. He said he would act in this year’s legislative session to “preserve law and order by enhancing accountability for criminals” and authorizing the death penalty for people who rape children. The governor seemed untroubled by a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty for child rapists was unconstitutional. He expressed confidence that the current Supreme Court, with its activist conservative majority, would overturn that precedent.

Part two of the DeSantis plan to move Florida to the front of the pack among death penalty states — and deal with the death penalty skeleton in his closet — involves changing the state law that requires jury unanimity to sentence someone to death. 

He told the Sheriff’s Association that what he called a “supermajority” on a jury should be sufficient for it to authorize an execution. “Maybe eight out of 12 have to agree or something,” DeSantis said, “but we can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this.”

His renewed interest in the death penalty comes amidst the widespread anger and dissatisfaction that followed last October’s verdict in the Parkland killer case. Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, was sentenced to life in prison without parole when three jurors refused to vote for death.

In his speech, DeSantis mischaracterized the Parkland verdict by attributing it to “One (who) said no,” and he blasted “people who get on these juries who never intend to administer capital punishment.” He called on the legislature to make sure that never happens again in Florida.

On Jan. 30, his allies responded by introducing bills in the Florida House and Senate that, as Florida Herald Tribune reported, “would allow judges to sentence defendants to death based on the recommendations of eight out of 12 jurors.” 

If DeSantis gets his way, and this legislation passes, it would be easier for Florida juries to  sentence people to death than in any of America’s other death penalty states, including Texas and Oklahoma. That is something DeSantis will surely tout — along with his attacks on transgender people, Critical Race Theory, and woke banks — if he decides to seek the Republican nomination for president.

What he won’t tout is that non-unanimous verdicts will mean that in Florida, which already leads the nation in the number people exonerated and released from death row, even more innocent people are likely to be sentenced to death.

What DeSantis won’t tell his audiences is that his death penalty plan will make Florida the state where justice goes to die.

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty” and “Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution.” The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College.

Tags 2024 presidential race 2024 Republican primary Capital punishment Culture Wars death penalty DeSantis 2024 executions exoneration jury unanimity jury verdict Lawton Chiles Lethal injection National Registry of Exonerations Nikolas Cruz Parkland Florida school shooting Republican nomination Republican Party presidential primaries Rick Scott Ron DeSantis tough on crime

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