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Parkland School Shooter Trial Begins

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Nikolas Crus appears in court | Image by Getty Images

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Jurors last week began considering the sentence that Nikolas Cruz, 23, will receive for carrying out the February 2018 shooting massacre in Parkland, Florida. Cruz killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and injured 17 others. The penalty trial is expected to last about four months.

It has taken more than four years for the case to reach the courtroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The trial was initially scheduled for 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and legal disputes.

Cruz pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of first-degree murder; the only aspect of the case he is challenging is the prosecution’s demand for the death penalty. The seven-man, five-woman jury must decide whether Cruz should receive the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole.

Lead prosecutor Mike Satz accused Cruz of performing a “cold, calculating, manipulative, and deadly” crime that involved disturbingly high levels of violence. He presented video evidence of the mass shooting, which included audio of gunfire and children screaming.

The prosecution laid out a minute-by-minute timeline of how Cruz carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in the nation’s history. The gunman roamed the three-story school, firing his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle into classrooms and hallways. He occasionally returned to injured victims and executed them with a second round of shots.

Satz provided the jury with a thorough presentation detailing the gunman’s months-long planning of his attack. Cruz boasted about it in a video that police found on his cellphone. The recording was made three days before he took an Uber to the school to conduct the massacre.

Cruz, wearing a face mask and dressed in a gray and black sweater, dropped his head at the defense table and did not look up as the jury heard recordings of the shots fired. His victims’ families turned to one another for comfort. Some left the courtroom in obvious distress.

Five seconds into the video, a woman was heard saying she had had enough. “Shut it off!” she yelled.

One of the videos shown at the proceeding was recorded by Danielle Gilbert, a former student at the school, who remarked, “We were just sitting — kind of like sitting ducks; we had no way to protect ourselves.”

In order to reach a death penalty sentence under Florida law, the jury must unanimously decide that the defendant’s actions constitute a capital crime, based on the deliberation over several other “aggravating factors.”

The jury will consider aggravating circumstances such as a defendant’s prior conviction of a violent offense, if the defendant deliberately put many people at risk, and/or whether the murder was particularly “heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” Satz claimed that all necessary factors are present in Cruz’s crime.

However, the jury could also consider potential “mitigating circumstances” that would compel them to vote for life in prison over the death penalty.

Cruz’s defense team is expected to petition the jury to spare his life on the grounds that he had a difficult childhood and was undergoing mental health treatment. Cruz’s mother passed away in 2017, and at the time of the mass shooting, he was staying with a foster family.

Cruz’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeil, declined to make an opening statement, stating that she would wait until the prosecutor concluded and would present to the jury later.

Jurors are expected to get the case this fall, at which point they will vote 17 times on whether Cruz will receive the death penalty or a life sentence, once for each victim. They must decide unanimously to vote for the death penalty; if one dissents, Cruz will receive a life sentence for that victim’s death. However, if all jurors vote for the death penalty for just one victim’s murder, he will be executed.    

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