FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The prosecutor seeking to sentence Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz to death let the facts speak for themselves as he presented his case: terrifying witness accounts; heartrending statements from parents and spouses; chilling surveillance videos; gruesome autopsy and crime scene photos; and, as a capstone, Thursday’s jury walk-through of the three-story building where it happened, bloodstains and Valentine’s Day cards still clinging to the floors.
Lead prosecutor Mike Satz, the 80-year-old former Broward County state attorney, then rested his case against the defendant who murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
Cruz’s attorneys repeatedly objected that Satz’s case went beyond what was legally allowable or necessary and was aimed primarily at inflaming the jurors’ emotions — objections that were denied by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.
There was never any doubt Satz would be able to prove the killings were “cold, calculated and premeditated,” that Cruz’s actions were “heinous, atrocious or cruel” and “created a great risk to many persons ” and four other aggravating circumstances listed in Florida law that make him eligible for a possible death sentence. But Satz also had to give them heft as they must, in the jurors’ unanimous opinion, “outweigh” the mitigating factors the defense will soon present.
“I didn’t think there were any surprises, but what surprises could there have been?” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in suburban Fort Lauderdale. “The jurors knew walking in what Cruz had done. … The question that kept running through my mind was, ‘Was it too much?’”
“He did a fantastic job,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor. “He has built a case that I think has given the jury more than enough to find these aggravating factors and was not over-the-top at all.”
After a one-week break, the sides will spend a week without the jury arguing before Judge Scherer over what evidence Cruz’s defense can present about how his birth mother’s drinking and drug abuse during pregnancy affected his brain and whether defects can be seen on scans.
Jennifer Zedalis, a University of Florida law professor, said such arguments over fetal alcohol syndrome scans go back 20 years.
“Brain scans, MRIs, we can learn from them — the argument will be over whether the evidence reaches a the standard of relevance and reliability to be permitted,” Zedalis said. She said if the evidence’s admissibility is borderline, she would expect the judge to side with Cruz’s lawyers as appellate courts have said “a defendant on trial for his life deserves wide latitude.”
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder; the trial is only to decide whether the former Stoneman Douglas student is sentenced to death or life without parole. Once they begin deliberating, likely several weeks from now, the jury will take separate votes for each victim. For each death sentence, the jury must be unanimous or the sentence for that victim is life.
After Scherer rules, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill is expected to give her opening statement Aug. 22 and then she and her team will present their case.
“That’s when the trial really begins,” Jarvis said.
Instead, they are expected to focus on his life, starting with his birth mother’s addictions; his severe emotional and behavioral problems that began in preschool and the holes in his treatment; his adoptive father’s death when he was 5; his adoptive mother’s death three months before the shootings; his alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a “trusted peer”; that he was an immature 19-year-old; and the bullying he endured from his brother and his brother’s friends.
McNeill and her team are unlikely to downplay the severity of Cruz’s actions — they have conceded in court several times that the murders were horrible and wiped away tears during some parents’ statements about their dead child.
The defense will argue, “If you send him to death, you are ignoring all of that and that is just wrong,” Jarvis said.
Weinstein said the defense has a tough task. The jurors all swore they could vote for either death or life, based on the evidence. Even if the defense can prove some mitigating factors, he said, it will be difficult for those to outweigh 17 people murdered in cold blood.
“I don’t think you can paint a picture of Cruz as sympathetic, that he’s not as bad as what the prosecution has said,” Jarvis said. “Instead, they have to show that he is a victim, that he fell through the cracks, that society failed him from the outset. …Society created this monster and failed to stop this monster.”
Weinstein said the prosecution will argue if the death penalty “is not appropriate in this circumstance, why do we have it? What could happen that’s possibly any more egregious than this?”
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