On April 20th, Ron DeSantis, Florida governor and presidential hopeful, signed a law allowing Florida juries to recommend the death penalty with only an 8-to-4 vote. Previously, Florida required a unanimous vote in death penalty cases. Under the new law, Florida will have a lower threshold for imposing the death penalty than any other state. The change was prompted by the sentencing of the Parkland shooter to life in prison without parole for the murder of 17 people, a case that makes it all too easy to ignore what this law will mean in practice: Florida will murder more innocent people.
Florida has had 30 exonerations from death row since 1976, more than any other state, which is one for every three people killed on Florida’s death row in the same period. At least 190 people have been exonerated from death row nationally since 1973, a number that grows every year. Of course, those are only the people we know about – exoneration is not an easy process, and once someone has already been killed, defense attorneys generally move on to cases where saving a life is still an option. A number of cases in recent memory involved the state moving ahead with execution plans while there remained unresolved questions about police misconduct, such as the case of Nathaniel Woods, and the quality of evidence presented in court, such as the case of Walter Barton, both killed by the state (Alabama and Missouri, respectively) in 2020. The best chance a wrongfully convicted person has to avoid the death penalty lies with the jury, and Florida has significantly limited that chance.
Florida, like most other states that impose the death penalty, allows prosecutors and courts to dismiss jurors who are unwilling to impose the death penalty – a policy called “Death Qualification.” This results in disproportionately white (and authoritarian) juries in death penalty cases, and increases the likelihood that 8 of those jurors will vote in support of the death penalty. In a study of 12 death penalty cases in Duval County, Florida since 2010, that involved more than 800 jurors and where 11 out of 12 people on trial were Black, Black jurors were twice as likely to be removed as white jurors because of death qualification.
The death penalty is part of the legacy of lynching: one of the main legal justifications for expanding the death penalty in the 1930s was to reduce lynching, and racial resentment in states where lynching was common has been linked to higher rates of death sentencing. This phenomenon is directly observable in Florida. From 1880 to 1940, Florida had the highest number of lynchings per capita compared to any other state. Three-fourths of Florida’s death row exonerations have been people of color. The four youngest juveniles executed in Florida’s electric chair were 16 years old; all four children were Black. Nationally, 41% of Americans on death row are Black, despite making up 13% of the population, but the statistics in Florida are even worse. Of the 297 people currently on death row in Florida, 111 are Black (53%). Before the passing of this law, it only took one juror to save a Black person’s life. Now it will take at least four.
If concerns over the deaths of innocents aren’t enough, even conservatives ought to oppose the death penalty on the basis of the undue financial burden it places on taxpayers. Florida taxpayers pay more than $51 million per year to try to enforce the death penalty. The death penalty sentence costs taxpayers more money even than life in prison without parole. Florida’s recent change to the death penalty is just another way the GOP is prioritizing authoritarian policies over its supposed commitment to fiscal conservatism.
Even if none of the above were true, the death penalty is worth opposing outright. A death sentence is an unnecessary, non-defensive act of killing, and once carried out, it can never be reversed. There is no hope of rehabilitation when someone is already dead. The death penalty provides no restitution to victims and encourages a culture of revenge, not justice. The death penalty necessitates that someone takes on the role of Executioner, making at least two killers out of one. Whether or not someone “deserves” to die or can never be rehabilitated, who deserves to kill? Is revenge worth the cost of our own morality? Why do we murder people to show that murdering people is wrong?
With the other authoritarian laws Florida is passing left and right that target women and LGBTQ+ people, I shudder to think how this will be applied in the long term. It’s not a stretch to think that Florida will target people who have abortions or miscarriages with the death penalty in the future, and now only 8 of the 12 jurors have to agree for the death sentence to be applied. Florida is already attempting to extend the death penalty to people who commit sexual battery against children (signed into law on May 1st) in the hope the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn its 2008 decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which barred capital punishment for crimes where the victim did not die. Will Florida then extend the definition of “sexual battery of children” to include “gender-affirming healthcare”? As the increasingly-mainstream far right pushes to falsely link non-conforming gender expression to child abuse or “grooming,” will drag performers be targeted too? With a SCOTUS that continues to fail to protect the basic human rights of its citizens, Florida is poised to continue its domino-like cascade of human rights violations into possibilities that are horrific and all-too-real.