Death penalty law changing justice in Florida

Reporter: Maddie Herron
Published: Updated:

He massacred 17 people, and now, the Parkland shooter sits in prison with no chance of the death penalty. His jury didn’t come to a unanimous decision.

Life in prison angered countless people, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who personally pushed for a change in state law, which now only requires 8 out of 12 jurors to agree.

This change now means that these three killers, Joseph Zieler, Wade Wilson and Zephen Xaver face the death penalty.

Losing a loved one to murder was a nightmare many families suffered in 2018 when the Parkland shooter killed 17 people inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Today, he sits in prison alive with no chance at the death penalty.

At the time, a Florida state law required a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty.
Nine jurors pushed for his execution, and three didn’t, saving the shooter from death row.

“All 12 would have to vote for death. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a death recommendation,” said Kevin Shirley, Florida defense attorney.

Shirley said the Parkland shooting was the trigger for change.

Upset with the Parkland shooter’s sentence, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill in May of 2023, making an 8-4 majority rule the new Florida standard in capital punishment.

“If Parkland were tried under the current circumstances, there would have been a recommendation of death in that case,” Shirley said.

A 9 to 3 vote in favor of the death penalty.

In two recent capital murder trials, Wade Wilson and Zephen Xaver had the same vote tally,
but with a much different outcome.

“If the Florida law hadn’t changed, we may not be having this conversation today,” Shirley said.

Shirley was one of Wilson’s attorneys, defending the man who brutally murdered two women in Cape Coral in 2019.

“9-3. That’s pretty close. All we needed was two more jurors, and we’re in [an] automatic life sentence,” Shirley said.

The law may make a death row jury recommendation for killers like Wilson easier, and while that may be a loss for Shirley and other public defenders, many loved ones of murder victims see the new law as a win.

“I agree with the change in the law. I like it not just because of this case, that because it stops deadlocks,” said Michael Cook, Sebring shooting victim’s husband.

“I think the change of the law was necessary. I don’t think it should be up to one juror that could make a decision on an entire case because it needed to be 12,” said April Nelson, Sebring shooting victim’s daughter.

Family members of the five women murdered inside a 2019 Sebring bank rejoiced to hear Xaver, their loved one’s killer, recommended be put to death, a decision only possible with the new 8-4 majority rule.

This legislation is just over a year old, and Florida is already seeing major ripple effects.

Shirley told WINK News that there are changes in the law courts have to take into consideration, such as if it applies to a case that has been delayed from years prior to the new bill.

This was a concern in Wilson and Xaver’s trials, but both judges upheld the current majority rule, sending both killers down a deadlier path.

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