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Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it easier to impose the death penalty in Florida

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

First, though, we're going to talk about a significant change for Florida's criminal justice system. Last year when the gunman who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland stood trial, a jury sentenced him to life in prison. Nine of the 12 jurors wanted to sentence him to death, but imposing the death penalty in Florida required a unanimous jury until now. Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill allowing juries to recommend a death sentence with an 8-to-4 vote. That's the lowest threshold in the country. Maurice Chammah traces the history of capital punishment in his book "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty," and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Why don't you explain the essential rationale behind requiring a unanimous jury for the death penalty overall? Why do - why is that?

CHAMMAH: Sure. So the Supreme Court has never spoken directly about this. They've said that a jury needs to be unanimous when voting for guilt, as opposed to innocence, in a criminal case. But on the death penalty, many states have long recognized the idea that death is just different from all other punishments. It's the ultimate punishment. You can't go back. And so as a result, many states, including epicenters of the death penalty, like Texas and Oklahoma, have required unanimous juries for decades. And there have only been a few exceptions to that.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about why Governor DeSantis and supporters wanted to enact this law?

CHAMMAH: This law certainly appears to be a response to the outcome of the Parkland case. When Nikolas Cruz did not receive the death penalty last fall, there was a lot of outrage from members of the victims' families, politicians in Florida, and then even some of the jurors came out and said, we voted for the death penalty, and there were just three jurors that sort of derailed that and led to this life-in-prison outcome. And that was what spurred the Florida legislature to gin up this process. I also think it's worth noting that DeSantis has not announced a run for president yet, but he's expected to run. And you sense in the Florida legislature a lot of bills that are part of building a sort of tough-on-crime resume.

BLOCK: Yeah. Let's talk about the political context here because public opinion favoring capital punishment has trended down. Executions have gone down a lot over the past two decades. But you write that rhetoric on the death penalty might well become a factor in next November's elections. What are you seeing?

CHAMMAH: So if you zoom back to the 1990s, it was common to see the death penalty on presidential debate stages. That really disappeared over the last 20 years. But in the current moment, you're seeing kind of a return to the death penalty as a focal point for campaign rhetoric. So Donald Trump will get on rally stages and talk about executing drug dealers. There are reports that he's talking about, you know, guillotines and group executions - things that have never really been done in the United States and are pretty unlikely to happen. But it's symbolic. It's rhetoric. And DeSantis seems to be following suit to sort of compete with this tough-on-crime message but do it through actual policy proposals that will really have a measurable impact and lead to more people going to death row in Florida.

BLOCK: Maurice, if you look overall at racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty, what do those numbers show, and how might Florida's new law affect those?

CHAMMAH: So death rows across the United States, including in Florida, are disproportionately made up of Black Americans. There's a variety of historical reasons for that, and there is a lot of fear on the left that this bill will lead to those disparities being exacerbated. So there is evidence from other states, including Alabama and Louisiana, that when juries are not unanimous, it sidelines the Black jurors, who maybe would have been the more skeptical ones of a conviction or a death sentence, and sends the person to death row. So you may see more Black Floridians sent to death row. And you also, based on precedents, might see more innocent people sent to death row because there are - is less of an ability for jurors who are sort of skeptical or cautious to have their voice be heard.

BLOCK: So Governor DeSantis has now signed this law. It says that juries don't have to be unanimous if they impose the death penalty. Is this law subject to appeal? Is anybody challenging it?

CHAMMAH: Nobody's challenging it yet because it was just signed. But over the next few years, you are definitely going to see people sentenced to death with non-unanimous juries, and you're going to see those appeals climb their way through the courts and likely end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, which, you know, has shown a willingness to overturn precedent. But actually, many of the conservatives on the court have shown that they really care about unanimous juries and giving the power to juries in cases. So it's really anyone's guess which way that could go.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Maurice Chammah, staff writer at The Marshall Project. Thanks very much.

CHAMMAH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.