Life or death for the Parkland shooter? The trial will take months

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Four years, five months and four days after Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, his trial for the deadliest mass shooting in the United States to reach a jury begins Monday with opening statements.

Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and legal wrangling, the sentence-only trial is expected to last four months, with the jury of seven men and five women exposed to gruesome evidence throughout. Jurors will then decide whether Cruz, 23, is sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole.

“Finally,” said Lori Alhadeff, who wants Cruz executed for the murder of her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa. “Hopefully quick action will hold him accountable.”

All the parents and family members of the victims who have spoken publicly have directly or indirectly stated that they want Cruz to be sentenced to death.

The former Stoneman Douglas student pleaded guilty in October to the February 14, 2018 massacre and is only contesting his sentence. Nine other American gunmen who shot and killed at least 17 people died during or immediately after their suicide bombings or by police shootings. Cruz was captured after running away from school. The suspect in the 2019 murder of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.

Senior District Attorney Mike Satz will present his side. Satz, 80, spent 44 years as Broward County state’s attorney and named himself lead prosecutor shortly after the shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members. He did not seek a 12th term and left office in early 2021, but his successor, Harold Pryor, kept him on the case.

Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami, said Satz would likely emphasize the brutality of the shooting and the story of each victim lost. The theme of the prosecution throughout the trial will be: “If any case deserves a death sentence, this is it,” he said.

“They’re going to want to talk about the horror of the crime, about Mr. Cruz’s guilt,” said Trocino, who worked on defendants’ death sentence appeals before joining law school.

Cruz’s leading public defender, Melisa McNeill, recently said in court that she hasn’t decided whether her team will make their opening statement immediately after Satz or wait several weeks until it’s time to present his case.

Trocino said delaying their opening statement would be a risky and extremely rare defense strategy because it would give the prosecution the sole say for half the trial.

He said Cruz’s attorneys will likely want to plant the seed in the minds of jurors that he is a young adult with ongoing emotional and psychological issues. The aim would be to temper the emotions of jurors as the prosecution presents gruesome videos and photos of the shooting and its aftermath, the painful testimony of injured survivors and the tearful statements of family members of the victims.

Jurors will also tour the sealed three-story classroom building where the massacre took place. It remains bloodstained and riddled with bullets, with deflated Valentine’s Day balloons and dead flowers strewn about.

“The defense will want to put a human face on Cruz,” Trocino said. “They’ll want to show why life without the possibility of parole is punishment enough.”

During the trial, the prosecution is expected to present a comprehensive account of the history of Cruz’s threats, his planning, and the ruthless nature of the shooting. But they will also spend time on each individual murder as jurors will ultimately vote on 17 potential death sentences, one for each victim.

Satz’s team will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cruz committed at least one aggravating circumstance specified by Florida law, but that shouldn’t be a problem. These include particularly heinous or cruel murders; committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner; or committed in an act that created a great risk of death for many people.

Cruz’s team can raise several extenuating circumstances that are also in the law. Prior to the shooting, Cruz had no criminal history. Lawyers can argue that he suffered from extreme mental or emotional disturbance and that his ability to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform to the law was significantly impaired.

They will likely present evidence that:

— Cruz’s biological mother abused alcohol and drugs during her pregnancy. His lawyers say it damaged his brain and left him intellectually disabled, with behavioral problems starting in kindergarten.

— A “trusted peer” sexually assaulted him.

— When Cruz was 5 years old, his adoptive father died of a heart attack in front of him, which left his adoptive mother to take care of him and his brother alone.

— His adoptive mother abused alcohol and died less than four months before the massacre.

— He was 19 when the shooting happened.

For each death sentence, the jury must be unanimous or the sentence for that victim is life. Jurors are told that in order to vote for death, the aggravating circumstances of the prosecution for that victim must, in their opinion, “outweigh” the mitigating circumstances of the defence. A juror can also vote for life out of pity for Cruz. During jury selection, panelists declared under oath that they were able to vote for either sentence.

It’s possible that Cruz could kill some victims and life for others, especially since he came back to some wounded victims and killed them with a second volley. This could tip the jurors hesitant on these points.

“The prosecution only needs the jury to come back (for the death) on one,” Trocino said.

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