When it comes to deciding on the death penalty, it’s not always a party line vote
Hillsborough GOP Rep. Mike Beltran says death penalty sentences should only be imposed if the jury votes unanimously
House Rep. Mike Beltran, who represents part of Hillsborough and Manatee counties. Credit: Florida Channel
Lawmakers in the 2023 session will make a weighty decision on the death penalty — and the vote may not be on a straight party line.
On Wednesday, Republican House Rep. Mike Beltran voted against a GOP-sponsored bill that would reduce the number of jurors — 8 instead of 12 — required to impose a death sentence.
Beltran, an attorney who represents parts of Hillsborough and Manatee, was alone on this one.
All other Republican committee members on Wednesday voted for the measure, which came out of the 2018 shootings that killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. A jury gave the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, life in prison instead of the death penalty.
Beltran, who litigates on a number of issues including criminal defense, told colleagues that he opposed the measure by emphasizing how he believed that Cruz absolutely deserved the death penalty. The South Florida jury voted 9-3 last fall to sentence Cruz to prison rather than execute him. That verdict led Gov. Ron DeSantis and others to decry the decision and call for changing Florida law when it comes to how many jurors are required to impose a death sentence.
“The case was not handled correctly,” Beltran said. “He should have been executed.”
But Beltran went on to add that he believes that “you should have to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. You should have to prove no doubt at all before somebody is executed.”
If passed, the measure (PSC for HB 555) would make Florida only the second state in the nation not to require a unanimous jury verdict before sentencing someone to death – Alabama is the only state currently that doesn’t require a jury verdict. That state requires a minimum of 10 jurors to decide on the death penalty.
The proposal moving in the House and Senate would lower that bar to just eight jurors.
“We require unanimous juries to convict for anything and we should require unanimous juries to execute,” Beltran said.
Beltran isn’t the only legislator to cross party lines on this issue.
Last week in a Senate committee, State Sen. Jason Pizzo, an attorney and former prosecutor, voted to support the legislation. Pizzo represents Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
He said he has seen cases where somebody deserves to be sentenced to death and said that it “was unfortunate that it does take a tragedy for us to wake up.” And he noted that the tragedy at Parkland is not the only time the Legislature has acted to change policy on a single issue, noting legislation that was enacted after the building collapse at Surfside where 98 people died.
“We have a situation where it’s done 17 times?” he said of Cruz. “You don’t deserve to live.”
Pizzo said that it still will require a unanimous jury to agree that the defendant is guilty of a crime that qualifies for a death sentence, something that he said is not simple for a prosecutor to achieve.
He did note that an 8-4 vote means a full third of the jury wouldn’t be supportive of a death sentence, something that concerned him.
Also arguing in support of the proposal on Wednesday was Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He also noted that the proposal wouldn’t change the fact that a jury must agree unanimously that a defendant qualified for a death sentence but said that “it will provide a better opportunity for justice for the victims of murder.”
The House bill now goes to the full floor for a vote.
The companion measure in the Senate still has two more committees to get through to reach the full Senate floor.
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