A 12-person jury in the Parkland school shooter’s sentencing is expected to begin deliberations Wednesday on whether to recommend the death penalty.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said the jury will be sequestered during their deliberations.
Should jurors recommend the death penalty, their decision must be unanimous or Nikolas Cruz will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury recommends death, the final decision rests with Judge Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.
Cruz has pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed. The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school. In the years following the shooting, survivors and victims’ families became very outspoken about gun control.
Because Cruz pleaded guilty to all counts, the trial was skipped and the court went straight to sentencing.
Closing arguments in the sentencing took place on Tuesday, with the defense and prosecution each allotted two and a half hours to make their closing remarks. Prosecutors argued that Cruz’s decision to commit the shooting was premeditated and calculated, while Cruz’s defense attorneys offered evidence of a lifetime of struggle at home and at school.
“What he wanted to do, what his plan was and what he did, was to murder children at the school and their caretakers,” lead prosecutor Michael Satz said Tuesday. “The appropriate sentence for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty,” he concluded.
However, defense attorney Melisa McNeill said Cruz “is a brain-damaged, broken, mentally ill person, through no fault of his own.” She pointed to the defense’s claim that Cruz’s mother used drugs and drank alcohol while his mother was pregnant with him, saying he was “poisoned” in her womb.
“And in a civilized humane society, do we kill brain-damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “Shall we? I hope not.”
Jury selection for the lengthy trial began in early April, with opening statements for the death penalty trial taking place in July. Over the past three months, prosecutors and defense attorneys have presented evidence of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances, reasons why Cruz should or should not be put to death.
As part of the prosecution’s case, family members of the victims were given the opportunity over the summer to take the stand and offer raw, emotional testimony about how Cruz’s actions had forever changed their lives. At one point, even members of Cruz’s defense team were brought to tears.
The defense’s case unexpectedly stalled last month when the public defenders appointed to represent Cruz — after calling just 26 of 80 scheduled witnesses — suddenly rested, prompting the judge to admonish the team for what she said was unprofessional, resulting in an altercation in the courtroom between her and the defense (the jury was not present).
Defense attorneys would later file a motion to disqualify the judge for her comments, arguing in part that they suggested the judge was not impartial and Cruz’s right to a fair trial had been undermined. Prosecutors disagreed, writing “judicial comments, even of a critical or hostile nature, are not grounds for disqualification.”
Scherer eventually rejected the proposal.