Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ( Associated Press) — The penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nicolas Cruz began Monday, the deadliest US mass shooting to go before a jury.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of 14 students and three staff members at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, and is only fighting his sentence. The jurors must decide whether he receives death or life without parole.
Chief prosecutor Mike Saitz was expected to uncover Cruz’s brutality as he chased the three-story classroom building, firing his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in hallways and classrooms. Cruz would sometimes run back to the wounded victims and kill them with a second shot.
Describing a video made by Cruise three days before the massacre, Satz described him as “cold, calculating, manipulative and deadly”.
“This is what the defendant said: ‘Hello, my name is Nick. I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My target is at least 20 guys with AR15s and some tracer rounds. It’s going to be a big event. And you’ll know who I am when you see me in the news. You’re all gonna die. Ah yes, I can’t wait. Ah yes, I can’t wait.'”
About 50 members of the victims’ families were in the courtroom, some pairs holding hands. Some parents wept as Satz described the death of their children. A mother got up crying and left.
It was unclear whether there was anyone to support Cruz other than his defense attorneys, who stopped writing and held his head in one hand, as Saitz described how he loaded up with extra ammunition. Removed a vest and went through the school, killing and injuring people along the way.
A seven-man, five-female panel, supported by 10 options, is considering the fate of the former Stoneman Douglas student. Expected to last about four months, the trial was scheduled to begin in 2020, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and legal battles.
Defense lawyers would not say when they would give their opening — at the beginning of the trial or when they would begin presenting their case from now on. The latter tactic would be rare and risky because it would give prosecutors the only chance to say so before jurors scrutinize the grim evidence and hear heart-wrenching testimony from survivors and victims’ parents and spouses.
If lead defender Melissa McNeill makes her statement, she will emphasize that Cruz is a young adult with lifelong emotional and psychological problems, reportedly from fetal alcohol syndrome and abuse. The goal would be to placate the feelings of jurors during the prosecution’s case hearing, leaving them more open to considering the defense’s arguments later.
The February 14, 2018 Parkland shooting is the deadliest to reach trial in US history. Nine other gunmen, who killed at least 17 people, either committed suicide or were killed by police gunfire, during or shortly after their shootings. A suspect in the 2019 murder of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, awaits trial.
After the opening, which is limited to every 90 minutes, the first witnesses of the prosecutors will be called. He didn’t say who that would be.
This is the first death penalty trial for Circuit Judge Elizabeth Sherer. When jurors finally find a case this fall, they will vote 17 times for each victim on whether to recommend the death penalty.
Every vote must be unanimous; A unanimous vote for either of the victims means that Cruz’s sentence would be life imprisonment for that person. The jurors are told that in order to vote in favor of the death penalty, the dire circumstances the prosecution has presented for the victim must “exceed” the mitigating factors presented by the defense in its decision.
Regardless of the evidence, any juror can graciously vote for life in prison. During jury selection, the panelists said under oath that they were able to vote for any sentencing.