FORT LAUDERDALE — Jurors reached a verdict Thursday in the sentencing trial of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school gunman who pleaded guilty last year to killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and the 12-person jury will recommend whether Cruz, then 19 and now 24, is put to death or sentenced to life in prison.
If the jury recommends death, a move that must be unanimous, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will make the final ruling.
Jurors reached a verdict after little more than a day of deliberation. Their recommendation is expected to come by 10:30 a.m. ET, according to court personnel.
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Jury to decide: Life in prison or execution
Deliberations began Wednesday with the jury sequestered at an undisclosed hotel until they reach a decision. The panel of seven men and five women have two choices: Death or life in prison without the chance of parole. If the jury opts for execution, Judge Elizabeth Scherer can follow the recommendation or choose instead to sentence him to life.
For Cruz to get a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous on at least one victim and decide that “aggravating” factors — the cruelty involved in a crime, for instance — outweigh any “mitigating” factors, such as a defendant’s mental state.
Florida has not carried out a death sentence since 2019.
Prosecution says Cruz was ‘hunting victims’
Lead prosecutor Michael Satz painted a picture of Cruz as a cold-blooded murder who meticulously planned out the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre and has antisocial personality disorder, not fetal alcohol syndrome as defense attorneys claim. Witnesses testified that Cruz’s birth mother consumed drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant.
With family members of the victims packing the courtroom, Satz repeated gruesome, bloody details of the horror that took place on the first and third floors of the school’s freshman building, recounting vividly to jurors how the students and staff members died.
Cruz, Satz said, was “hunting his victims” and even returned to kill students such as Peter Yang and Joaquin Oliver whose initial gunshot wounds were not fatal, according to medical examiners who testified during the four-month trial. Read more here.
Defense says Cruz was ‘broken and brain-damaged’
In her closing remarks, Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill asked jurors to consider not only Cruz’s crime but also his personal history, describing Cruz as a “broken, brain-damaged, mentally ill young man” who was “poisoned” in the womb through his birth mother’s frequent use of drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy.
McNeill focused much of her argument on Cruz’s early childhood, recounting testimony from witnesses describing how Cruz’s late biological mother, Brenda Woodward, smoked cigarettes and drugs and drank beer while she was pregnant.
During the trial phase of the sentencing hearing, two expert witnesses for the defense testified that Cruz suffered severe brain damage as a result of his biological mother’s alcohol abuse.
McNeill urged jurors to consider Cruz’s history of mental illness in rendering their decision, and argued that Cruz should be given a life sentence instead of the death penalty. She urged jurors to choose “courage over comfort” and told them that their decision should not be based on anger, revenge or hate.
“It is the right thing to do,” McNeill said of a life sentence. “Sentencing Nikolas to life and being up here and asking you to do that is the right thing to do.”
Parkland is the deadliest shooting to go to trial
The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting that has gone to trial in the United States, according to the Associated Press. Nine other people in the U.S. who fatally shot at least 17 people died during or immediately after their attacks by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.