Parkland father pushes for death penalty charges, bill advances in House to remove jury requirement

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida would have the lowest standards for a jury to recommend the death penalty of any state in the nation under legislation that cleared its second committee in the House Wednesday.

The bill is specifically aimed at preventing mass killers like the Parkland school shooter from getting away with a life sentence.

It was just a single jury holdout that resulted in Parkland shooter Nicholas Cruz dodging the death penalty.

For Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was murdered during the shooting five years ago, the jury recommendation was devastating.

”We can’t let one person hold up justice for the victims’ families,” said Montalto in an interview during the first week of the legislative session.

Montalto is backing a bill that would lower the threshold for juries to recommend death from a unanimous requirement, down to just eight of 12 in favor.

The only other state that doesn’t require a unanimous jury recommendation for the death penalty is Alabama, which requires 10 jurors to impose a death sentence.

Montalto shared his story with House lawmakers in the bill’s second committee hearing Wednesday morning.

”This admitted mass murderer chose to pull the trigger 139 separate times. Including the time when he put his gun to my daughter’s chest and shot her,” said Montalto.

But the bill faced hesitancy from some lawmakers who agreed with opponents of the bill including the ACLU, Conference of Catholic Bishops and Florida Defense Attorneys, which argued Florida is responsible for more death row exonerations than any other state, and most of those cases were decided by split juries.

”I’m just philosophically opposed to reducing the procedural protections surrounding the death penalty,” said State Representative Mike Beltran (R-Valrico).

”The idea of going back to the days when juries didn’t have to be sure someone deserved to die is dangerously deadly and a flawed proposition,” said State Representative LaVon Bracy Davis (D-Orlando).

The bill advanced on an 8-6 vote, with opposition from members of both parties.

But Montalto is optimistic the bill will clear the finish line this year.

He argues unanimity is still required for convictions and findings of aggravating factors that put the death penalty on the table.

”However, what it will allow is a bit of focus on the victims because the victims are so minimized in the death penalty process as we look at the actions of the perpetrator,” said Montalto.

The bill still has one more committee stop in both chambers before reaching the House and Senate floor for final votes.

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