GAINESVILLE, Fla. – With Florida making it easier for juries to impose the death sentence, two formerly condemned inmates who are still behind bars are warning that the change gives too much power over life and death to elected prosecutors. Their concerns are at odds with some families of murder victims.
“The reason this is happening is the state lawyers are crying cause it’s very hard to get a death sentence now,” said David Snelgrove, 50, in an interview from the state prison in Milton in Florida’s Panhandle. Once sentenced to death for beating, stabbing and strangling two of his former neighbors during a burglary in June 2000, another jury sentenced him to life in prison after his appeal.
“All this state believes in is, kill them or lock them up and throw the key away,” Snelgrove wrote in a message from the prison system from which he will never be released.
The daughter of the murdered couple, Pamela Norko of Long Beach, California, said in an interview she wants Florida to re-sentence Snelgrove to death under the new capital punishment law. She was unaware Florida changed its law – which she applauded – until a reporter contacted her.
“I will fight until the day I die to see him on death row again,” Norko said. “People like you and I pay for his food, his housing, his ability to go out among other prisoners to exercise and socialize. I believe there is no remorse. I think he should have been killed.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed into law a bill permitting capital punishment even in cases where only eight of 12 jurors approve, replacing Florida’s requirement for a unanimous jury that had been in place since 2017. The law took effect immediately. Alabama is the only other state that does not require a unanimous jury. It permits capital punishment with a 10-2 jury vote.
The governor – who has campaigned on a law and order platform – was outspoken in his support for the change after a jury voted 9-3 just before the midterm elections to spare the life of Nikolas Cruz. Cruz murdered 17 people during the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland in 2018. Cruz was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, infuriating some victims’ family members and lawmakers who believed Cruz should have been executed.
“It was a miscarriage of justice,” DeSantis said after the jury’s decision in October. “We need to do some reforms to be better serving victims of crimes and the families of victims of crimes, and not always bend over backwards to try to do everything we need to for the perpetrators of crimes.”
Parkland parents including Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina, 14, was killed in the shooting, praised the change: “A few months ago, we endured another tragic failure of the justice system,” he said the day DeSantis signed the bill. “Today’s change in Florida law will hopefully save other families from the injustices we have suffered.”
Snelgrove blamed “hard-core Republicans” for easing death sentences. Two GOP lawmakers, Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, sponsored the companion bills in the House and Senate.
The House passed the bill with an 80-30 vote, and the Senate passed it 29-10, mostly along party lines.
Snelgrove was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 2002 in Flagler County, south of Jacksonville. The trial jury voted 7-5 to recommend the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court reversed the death sentence and required a new trial because the jury rendered only one sentence for the two murders. In 2008, the second trial jury voted 8-4 for death.
After that, Snelgrove said he was certain he would be executed because at the time in Florida only a simple majority jury vote was needed for the ultimate punishment to be meted out. However, the majority rule was changed after 2016 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Supreme Court.
In 2017, the Legislature adopted a unanimous verdict requirement. In Snelgrove’s latest trial in 2020, the jury’s vote was not unanimous, so the Flagler County Circuit Court judge sentenced him to two consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Although I did commit these horrible murders, mentally that was not me who took those lives,” said Snelgrove, who blamed his crimes on a cocaine addiction. “I’ve been in prison now for 23 years, or just about, and I’ve never [had a] disciplinary report written on me. I’m a good person who did one of the worst things a person could do.”
If it takes 12 people to find a defendant guilty and eligible for capital punishment, then it should take that same 12 to give him or her a death sentence, Snelgrove said.
Norko, the victims’ daughter, said during Snelgrove’s trials and appeals, she bristled watching him in the courtroom making small talk and smiling with his attorneys during court breaks.
“I truly don’t believe he has one ounce of remorse for what he did to my family, to people in the community.”
Paul Durousseau, 52, another former Florida death row inmate, said eight jurors was not enough to impose the death penalty, adding that it gives “all power to the state.” He is imprisoned in Walton Correctional Institution in DeFuniak Springs, also in Florida’s Panhandle.
“If they reduce the number of jurors, that would be unfair to the inmate on trial fighting for their life,” he said in an interview. “Eight jurors isn’t enough. They need to keep it at 12.”
The former Jacksonville cab driver is accused of killing seven women from 1997 to 2003. He was convicted in one case in Duval County and sentenced to death by a 10-2 jury in 2007. That ruling was thrown out, and a new jury also voted 10-2 to condemn him after Florida’s death penalty statute was changed in 2017 to require a unanimous verdict. That effectively spared his life.
Last month, Florida executed “ninja killer” Louis Gaskin, 56, who was sentenced to death in 1990 by an 8-4 jury vote that was accepted by the judge: an example of what could happen under the state’s new law.
There was no new trial after the Florida law was changed in 2017, so the death penalty was carried out. Gaskin had confessed to the crimes and his last words were: “Justice is not about the crime. It’s not about the criminal. It’s about the law. Look at my case.”
Republican lawmakers who supported the bill said it will restore justice in a system that is currently flawed.
“The victims of the most evil crimes and their families deserve to see criminals punished to the full extent of the law,” Ingoglia, one of the sponsors, on the day the bill was signed into law. “One rogue juror should not be the sole arbiter of justice.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com. You can donate to support our students here.