PARKLAND, Fla. – For the first time, we are hearing what a juror for the Parkland school shooter’s penalty phase has to say about proposed changes to Florida’s death penalty laws.
Those changes were drafted in the wake of the controversial divided jury recommendation of life as the appropriate punishment for the convicted Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter.
In November, the life sentences were imposed by Broward Judge Elizabeth Scherer on confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz for the murders of 17 MSD staff members and students on Valentine’s Day in 2018 after the sentences were recommended by a divided jury.
Three members of the jury chose life in prison over the death penalty.
“The energy was so heated that we wanted to get out of that room,” said Melody Vanoy, a juror who voted for life in prison.
Nine jurors recommended death and some are still haunted by the outcome.
One of the nine who recommended death as the appropriate punishment asked Local 10 News not to share her name, but she wanted the community to know something.
“Those of us who were in that room and tried, we really did try, and that is really what I would like to get out there,” she said.
The verdict recommendation was devastating to some of the family members of the murdered victims.
“It is not right what happened to us, and if there was ever a case where an individual deserved the death penalty, the Parkland murderer is the one,” said Max Schachter, whose son Alex was one of the 17 victims killed in the shooting.
There is now a proposed change to jury verdicts in death penalty cases that, if passed, would toggle state law back to non-unanimous jury recommendations.
The bill reads: “If at least eight jurors determine that the defendant should be sentenced to death, the jury’s recommendation to the court shall be a sentence of death.”
Of the 27 states that impose the death penalty, the only state that doesn’t require a unanimous jury is Alabama, which requires a 10-to-2 majority.
Missouri and Indiana let a judge decide when there is a divided jury.
“Florida would be an extreme outlier in that scenario going back,” said University of Miami Law Professor Craig Trocino.
As director of Miami law’s Innocence Clinic, Trocino’s work is focused on exonerating the wrongfully convicted in Florida.
“Florida leads the nation of death row exonerations,” Trocino said. “There have been 30 people exonerated from death row, and the vast majority of those exonerations came from, you guessed it, non-unanimous jury verdicts.”
Parkland was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States to go before a jury.
“It is so horrific,” Trocino said. “That’s why tough, horrible cases like this are really bad bellwethers of policy because there is so much emotion wrapped up into it.”
Trocino urges caution pegging a policy change to one exceptionally egregious case.
“We really wanted this man to get the death penalty. He didn’t. So what do we do? Do we change the entire death penalty statute to make it easier for someone who is not as culpable as him to get the death penalty?” asked Trocino. “If you are asking me as a person, I get it. If you are asking me as a lawyer, if a petty theft is going to require a unanimous jury verdict, so should somebody who is going to be put to death require a unanimous jury verdict?”
The next Florida legislative session resumes in March.