Will Nikolas Cruz be given death penalty? Parkland shooter's trial may last for months, here's what to expect

Nikolas Cruz's sentencing trial for the 2018 shooting that left 17 people dead at a Florida high school began on Monday, July 18


                            Will Nikolas Cruz be given death penalty? Parkland shooter's trial may last for months, here's what to expect
A jury of seven men and five women have been tasked with determining his fate and must all vote unanimously for Cruz to be sentenced to death (Cathy Russon/Twitter)
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The penalty trial for Florida high school shooter Nikolas Cruz began on Monday, following the 2018 school massacre that killed 14 students and three staff members at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. From a video recorded by students, jurors and the courtroom audience heard the screams of victims shot during the Valentine's Day massacre. The lead prosecutor, Michael J Satz's opening remarks marked the start of the penalty phase of Cruz's criminal trial and come months after he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors have asked a panel of 12 jurors to sentence Cruz to death, while his defense attorneys have asked for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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Satz showed jurors a video of the moments shots were fired inside the classroom. The images were only visible to prosecutors and jurors, but the audio could be heard throughout the courtroom. The sound of gunshots and screaming rang out before someone in the gallery yelled, 'shut it off!' Cruz sat on the defense table, his head in his hands, listening to the horrifying audio.

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Satz, the lead prosecutor, recalled the high school massacre, ''I'm going to speak to you about the unspeakable about this defendant's goal-directed plan, systematic murder, mass murder of 14 children, an athletic director, a teacher and a coach."

Satz explained the evidence of the massacre that the jurors will view - including surveillance footage of Cruz shooting students and staff. ''You will see the defendant on the first floor, fire a rifle, shoot and kill nine students,'' Satz explained to jurors. ''You will see the defendant fire his rifle six times on the second floor and you will see him shoot and kill five students on the third floor and a teacher on the third floor.''

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Cruz remained hunched over in his seat, writing on a piece of paper and occasionally showing it to an attorney sitting beside him as Satz detailed how the 17 victims died, referring to each victim by name. Satz told the jury that the majority of the victims were shot four to six times, with one of the last victims, Peter Wang, shot 13 times on the third floor. ''The murders were cold, calculated, and premeditated,'' Satz said.

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Cruz was identified and arrested near a McDonald's after police received a description of him. Investigators later discovered a video of Cruz on the phone taken three days before the massacre, on Feb. 11, 2018, introducing himself as the "next school shooter" on the scene.''Hi, my name is Nick. I want to be the 2018 school shooter. My goal is to have at least 20 people with AR... I believe I can complete it. It will be a major event. You'll recognize me if you see me on the news. They will all perish. I know". According to Satz, Cruz stated, "I can't wait."

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Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder last fall after firing his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle inside a three-story classroom building on February 14, 2018. Throughout the shooting, Cruz would return to injured victims and kill them with a second round of shots.


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What to expect from the Nikolas Cruz trial?

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and jurors will decide whether he will receive the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Parkland shooter's trial is expected to last four months after being delayed for nearly two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and legal battles. On Monday, July 18, defence attorneys requested a mistrial and are scheduled to make their opening statements later that day. 

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Defenders will likely emphasize Cruz as a young adult with emotional and psychological problems who has suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and abuse. The Parkland school massacre is the deadliest to reach trial in US history. When the jury eventually gets the case this fall, it will vote 17 times on the question of whether to recommend the death penalty: once for each of the victims.

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Deciding on death penalty for Nikolas Cruz

The court spent weeks whittling down a pool of hundreds of potential jurors to a group of 12 jurors and 10 alternates. Of the 12 jurors, seven are men and five are women. Nine alternates are women, and one is a man. Every vote must be unanimous; a nonunanimous vote for any one of the victims means Cruz's sentence for that person would be life in prison. Regardless of the evidence, any juror can vote for life in prison out of mercy. In most criminal cases a jury determines culpability and a judge decides on the punishment. But in Cruz's case, the jury will decide how he is sentenced. However, as per state law, the judge can still sentence him to life in prison, even if the jury recommends that he be put to death.

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The Florida law states that prosecutors can seek the death penalty in cases where the accused has been convicted of first-degree murder with aggravating factors, which include previous felony convictions, murders that are "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel", creating "a risk of death to many persons" and "cold, calculated" murders that were premeditated.

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At the time of the shooting, Cruz was a 19-year-old expelled student with a history of mental health and behavioral issues at the time of the ''premeditated'' killings, the Broward State's Attorney's Office said in court documents. In fact, the defence is expected to argue that Cruz was plagued by mental illness and a difficult childhood and does not deserve to be executed.

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Cruz blamed marijuana for the massacre and apologized to victims' families during his plea hearing last month, saying, "The United States would do better if everyone stopped smoking marijuana". ''I despise drugs, and I believe that if everyone stopped smoking marijuana and doing drugs and causing racism and violence on the streets,'' he added.

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The trial, which is likely to last months, will delve more deeply into Cruz's personal history and will feature accounts from victims' families and those who witnessed the massacre.