Florida 'has taken a giant step backward': Supreme Court justice blasts the Sunshine State
Ron DeSantis speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court overturned a three-year-old court decision that had required a unanimous jury to enact the death penalty.

The court, now populated by a fresh contingent of right-wing justices appointed by pro-Trump Gov. Ron DeSantis, signaled to the GOP legislature that they may reinstate the old system for sentencing a defendant to death, which is that a simple majority on a jury could give an "advisory" ruling that the defendant deserves a death sentence, which would then be up the discretion of a judge.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that Florida's non-unanimous death sentencing is unconstitutional, but that decision left open a lot of ambiguity. The right-wing state justices chose to interpret the federal ruling as narrowly as possible, determining that a unanimous jury was only required for the determination that a defendant is eligible for the death penalty, and that a non-unanimous jury may determine the "aggravating factors" — that is, whether the crime was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel."

“In the strongest possible terms, I dissent,” wrote state Justice Jorge Labarga, the sole remaining liberal on the court. “Death is indeed different. When the government metes out the ultimate sanction, it must do so narrowly and in response to the most aggravated and least mitigated of murders ... this Court has taken a giant step backward and removed a significant safeguard for the just application of the death penalty in Florida."

Prior to today, Alabama was the only state that still allows death sentences to be issued by a non-unanimous jury. Today's decision clears the way for Florida to resume this practice.