As the clock counts down to Election Day, another hot-button issue has come to the fore: Florida’s death penalty. At an October campaign stop in Coral Springs, Gov. Ron DeSantis promised “to reform” the state’s capital punishment laws in light of the life sentence granted to the mass killer in the February 2018 Parkland high school shooting. Also at the stop were Hunter Pollack and Andrew Pollack, the brother and father of 18-year-old Meadow Pollack, one of the 17 students and staff shot to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. (“I freakin’ love Ron DeSantis,” the older Pollack told the crowd.)
In his first term as governor, DeSantis has signed three death warrants but the state executed only two of those prisoners, with the governor’s office pointing to the demands and distractions of the COVID-19 epidemic. With the health emergency having largely subsided, the Parkland verdict provided the spark needed for the governor to go into law-and-order mode.
“When you have something happen like this Parkland massacre, you need to hold people accountable. And nobody was being held accountable,” DeSantis said, recounting his suspension of now-former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and, more recently, his suspension of four Broward school board members castigated by a statewide grand jury. The Parkland shootings happened during the administration of Republican former Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the most death warrants – 28 – of any Florida governor since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S.
“When you murder 17 people in cold blood, the only appropriate punishment is capital punishment,” DeSantis went on. “We need to reform some of these laws. … That was a miscarriage of justice.” The governor added that he was confident “we’ll be able to do something legislatively.”
Florida’s machinery of death has been fraught with legal peril, most recently with a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision deeming the state’s capital sentencing system unconstitutional “because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries,” as the News Service of Florida has reported. State lawmakers soon approved a fix, including a majority requirement for death sentence recommendations, but then the state supreme court opined that jurors must be unanimous when it comes to the ultimate punishment.
The Legislature’s fealty to the governor of late suggests some legislation on the death penalty will arise after the November election. The question is how lawmakers take into account, as Justice Harry Blackmun famously penned, that “human error is inevitable, and … our criminal justice system is less than perfect.”