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More than four years after killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Nikolas Cruz is on trial Monday.
The troubled former student has already pleaded guilty to all charges. The jurors will decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. Jury selection, starting Monday, is expected to take weeks, but when arguments begin, the prosecution will take jurors through events they will likely already be familiar with.
It is expected to be an intense and emotional trial. If the defense finds it too difficult to seat an impartial jury in Broward County, attorneys can ask the judge to change venues, moving the trial to another location in Florida. Legal experts say this comes with its own risks, however. In such a high-profile case, it can be difficult to find jurors anywhere in the state who don’t already have an opinion.
What happened on February 14, 2018
It was Valentine’s Day in 2018 when the 19-year-old took an Uber to Parkland High School, not far from Ft. Lauderdale. He had been deported a year earlier and had a history of emotional and behavioral problems. Entering the building through an unlocked door, he began firing his AR-15 style rifle down the hallways and into the classrooms.
After shooting dozens of people, Cruz left his gun behind and escaped into the crowd evacuating the school. He was arrested shortly after, a few blocks away.
It left 14 students and 3 adults dead and at least 17 other students seriously injured.
“We heard bop, bop, bop, bop,” freshman Kelsey Friend said a day after the shooting. She said her teacher, Scott Beigel, opened a classroom door to let her and other students in. “I thought he was behind me, but he wasn’t. Sadly he passed away.”
Beigel was one of 17 killed. The tragedy immediately raised questions about law enforcement’s response to the shooting, missed warning signs that Cruz was planning an attack, and the laws that allowed a troubled teen to own a gun. . The day after the shooting, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said those questions would have to wait. “Right now,” he said, “the FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office are focused on successfully prosecuting this killer.”
Repercussions beyond the shooter
The prosecution moved slowly but following the shooting there were many other repercussions. Israel lost his job, removed from his post by the governor after the victims’ families and others accused him of incompetence and negligence in his department’s response to the shooting.
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A group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School responded by becoming nationally recognized anti-gun violence activists. In part because of their voices, Florida has passed laws preventing people under 21 from buying guns and allowing police to seize guns from those deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
Facing accusations of missing warning signs that the shooter was dangerous, the FBI and the Broward School District separately agreed to large monetary settlements with the families of those killed and injured.
But for the families, their primary focus remained the shooter and seeing him face justice. And for many, that means the death penalty. “He deserves every chance he gave my daughter and the 16 others,” said Tony Montalto, the father of Gina Montalto, one of the 17 killed that day.
The sentencing phase
The trial that begins Monday is the sentencing phase, during which jurors will have two choices: they can give Cruz what the defense is asking for, life in prison, or what the prosecution says is the only acceptable penalty, death.
Last fall, the defense surprised many when Cruz decided to plead guilty. Appearing in court, he addressed the judge and the families of those he killed and injured. “I’m really sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day,” he said. “And that if I had a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others.” Families of the victims rejected the apology, calling it “irrelevant” and “ridiculous”.
“The prosecutor is going to argue that this was a totally evil, unnecessary and horrific act,” said Stephen Harper, a longtime public defender and expert on Florida death penalty cases. He says that with so many people killed and injured, it’s an extremely difficult case for the defense. “The defense will argue that their client was seriously mentally ill.”
There have been numerous pre-trial motions and hearings about what kind of experts and evidence the defense will be allowed to present on what they claim is Cruz’s defective mental state. Harper says the evidence may include electroencephalogram tests and other forms of brain scans. He says: “His mother was apparently an alcoholic and drug addict. And in utero he would have been exposed to some very serious things that could have clearly affected his mental capacity. So those things are very relevant.”
The jury’s decision on sentencing must be unanimous. For the defense, that means finding a juror who might be swayed by evidence of mental illness.
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Phil Reizenstein, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who has had numerous death-sentence cases, says the heinous and premeditated nature of the mass shooting will be difficult for the defense to overcome. The jury will see videos recorded by students of the last moments of some of their classmates. And he says they will hear eyewitness accounts from teachers and students who survived. “They’re going to take the stand and they’re going to tell the jurors how they felt,” Reizenstein says, “their fear and horror at seeing their friends murdered. It’s just going to be explosive testimony for the prosecution.”
The jury will also hear statements from the families of those who were killed. Tony Montalto says he and his wife Jennifer will be there to talk about their daughter Gina, although he acknowledges it will be painful. “Every day is painful for us after the murder of our daughter,” he said. “This cold, calculated and deliberate act deprived us of our beautiful and loving daughter.”