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Florida's death penalty laws have changed; can it alter Wade Wilson's punishment?

A 2023 law allowed an 8-to-4 vote for death penalty recommendations.
Posted at 6:36 PM, Jun 26, 2024

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Florida’s death penalty laws changed in the five years between Wade Wilson’s arrest for double murder in Cape Coral and his ultimate conviction.

Tuesday, nine of the 12 jurors in the case recommended Wilson be put to death for the murder of Kristine Melton.

10 of them urged the death penalty for the murder of Diane Ruiz.

Despite the non-unanimous recommendations, Judge Nick Thompson, who will decide Wilson’s fate on July 23, can sentence Wilson to death due to a 2023 law.

Maria DeLiberato, Executive Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, believes Wilson’s case could put Florida’s law to the test.

“This is going to be litigated for decades,” DeLiberato said. “When (Wilson) was arrested, unanimity was the law. And then they changed the rules in the middle of his prosecution, basically.”

If there’s one thing that’s consistent about Florida’s death penalty laws, it’s the inconsistency.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty sentence of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of using a box cutter to kill a coworker at a Pensacola fast food restaurant in 1998.

A judge imposed the death penalty after a 7-to-5 recommendation from the jury.

The state legislature then passed a bill allowing 10-to-2 jury recommendations, but that was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

By 2017, unanimous jury decisions were required.

But that changed in 2023, after a Broward County jury couldn’t come to a unanimous death penalty recommendation for Parkland School Shooter Nikolas Cruz.

Gov. Ron DeSantis championed a new law allowing a death penalty recommendation of 8-to-4.

If Wilson is sentenced to death, he will join two other southwest Florida men on death row who also were sentenced after non-unanimous recommendations.

Joseph Zieler was sent to death row last year for killing a young girl and her babysitter.

That jury recommended the death penalty on a 10-to-2 vote.

Kevin Foster, the ringleader of the “Lords of Chaos,” a self-proclaimed militia group that killed a Lee County teacher, has been on death row since 1998.

His jury recommended the death penalty on a 9-to-3 vote.