New death penalty law raises questions about on-going cases

The law lowers the threshold for the death penalty decisions from all twelve jurors to eight jurors

FLORIDA – One day after Governor DeSantis signed new legislation which lowers the threshold for a jury vote on death penalty cases, there’s one very important unanswered question--in which cases will this law apply?

Senate Bill 450 allows juries to recommend a death sentence, as long as eight out of twelve jurors vote for it. It does not have to be unanimous anymore. But it’s unknown if this applies to cases that are going through the criminal justice system--before the law was signed.

News4JAX has learned this remains a mystery for every state attorney’s office in Florida because it’s not written in the bill’s language.

The State Attorney’s Office spokesperson David Chapman said, “It is the position of the State Attorney’s Office for the Fourth Judicial Circuit that the death penalty legislation recently signed into law by Governor DeSantis applies to any capital case currently pending in Florida’s criminal justice system. We intend to proceed accordingly.”

This is a new law that’s on the top of the minds of crime victims’ families, waiting to learn if the person who murdered their loved one only needs an eight to four vote from the jury, for that convicted killer to face the death penalty.

Jared Bridegan’s widow posted to Instagram about the law writing, “This law affects the ‘sentencing phase’--I’m sharing this because like it or not, it is the law as of today, and because it will affect the outcome of my husband’s case.”

The judge overseeing the case in the murder of 16-year-old Iyana Sawyer also made mention of Senate Bill 450 from the bench earlier this week. Not knowing if the new death penalty guidelines will be enforced for her uncle, Johnathan Quiles, whose case still hasn’t gone to trial four years after Sawyer disappeared.

“Currently the law is twelve to zero for death penalty. If it gets continued, I don’t know what the governors going to do, it may be eight to four and that brings up a whole other issue challenges and defense will make.”

It’s also unknown if the new death penalty law could be applied to the local murder case of Nassau County Deputy Josh Moyers…his killer Patrick McDowell, pleaded guilty just last month to 1st degree murder, after killing Deputy Moyers during a traffic stop.

“So I don’t anticipate there to be a change in cases that are pending,” defense attorney Gene Nichols said. “I anticipate it to be what’s going to happen going forward.”

Nichols says he thinks the new law will apply to murders committed after the law was signed by the Governor.

He says applying the new death penalty guidelines to pending cases would open up a mountain of legal arguments and appeals.

“Typically, with most laws, when you see changes like this, they don’t take place until something new happens,” Nichols said. “So it’s going to be very hard. Let’s say for a case that’s five years old and set for trial tomorrow, that everything changes, you know that you’ve had preparation, all of this time period for the expectation of a twelve to zero unanimous verdict when it comes to death.”

There’s also an ongoing discussion about whether judges will be given the discretion to apply the death penalty law or not. News4JAX is waiting to hear back from the Governors office for clarification on this new law. It’s unknown if the omission was an oversight or intentional.

About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.