Bishops Condemn Florida’s Dropping of Unanimous Jury Requirement for Death Penalty Cases

Florida’s bishops have long advocated for an end to Florida’s death penalty and have called for sentences of life in prison rather than capital punishment.

Death row cell block inside a maximum security prison.
Death row cell block inside a maximum security prison. (photo: Mr Doomits / Shutterstock)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill April 20 allowing prisoners in the state to be sentenced to death without a unanimous jury verdict.

Under the new law, a prisoner can be sentenced to death after eight of the 12 jurors recommend a death sentence, as long as the jury is unanimous that at least one aggravating factor — such as the crime being especially cruel or heinous — exists beyond a reasonable doubt.

In that case, a judge has the option of sentencing the defendant to death or life in prison. If fewer than eight jurors agree on the death sentence, the jury’s recommendation must be for life in prison without the possibility of parole, and the judge must impose that sentence. 

The state’s Catholic bishops, represented by Michael Sheedy, executive director for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops (FCCB), decried the change as a “setback.” Florida’s bishops have long advocated for an end to Florida’s death penalty and have called for sentences of life in prison rather than capital punishment. 

“It is stunning that the Florida Legislature would weaken a commonsense law passed just six years ago that required unanimous agreement by a jury in order to sentence someone to death. The new legislation requiring only eight of 12 jurors to agree in order to impose a death sentence takes our state backwards to outlier status once again with the lowest standard for imposing a death sentence,” Sheedy said in an April 13 statement. 

“As Florida persists in its implementation of the death penalty, the process should be as reliable and just as possible. Unanimity is required in every other circumstance when a jury is summoned in Florida. The harshest punishment that the state imposes should require the strictest standards.”

Before 2016, Florida law provided that prisoners could be sentenced to death by a simple majority of jurors, and judges could override juries’ sentencing decisions to impose capital punishment even when jurors thought it was not warranted, the New York Times reported. That year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Hurst v. Florida that that arrangement was unconstitutional, leading the Florida Legislature to adopt a law requiring unanimous jury decisions to impose the death penalty. 

In 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued a nonbinding opinion that the unanimity requirement could be reversed, the Times reported. The push to change Florida’s law was accelerated by the October 2022 sentencing of Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Cruz was sentenced to life in prison after the jury voted 9-3 in favor of the death penalty, a result that angered the family members of Cruz’s victims. 

“We are deeply saddened for the victims of violent crime. We acknowledge the pain experienced by their families and pray they receive comfort and healing in their time of need. The death penalty neither restores life nor alleviates suffering but only perpetuates violence and vengeance,” Sheedy continued. 

“The FCCB continues to oppose state-sanctioned killing and remains hopeful that despite this setback Florida will soon join the growing number of states that have ended the use of the death penalty.”

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, there are 297 people currently on Florida’s death row, three of whom are women. Florida has the largest active death row in the country; California’s is larger, but the state’s death penalty has been under a moratorium since 2019. As of 2020, no death row inmate in Florida has been granted clemency since 1983.

Florida has executed two people so far this year after zero executions during the years 2020, 2021, and 2022. The state executed eight people in 2014, the most since 1984. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting an update promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018, describes the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The change reflects a development in Catholic doctrine in recent years. St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” 

He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.” And Pope Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”