During their second day of deliberations Thursday, the 12-person jury tasked with recommending a death sentence or life in prison for the Parkland, Florida school shooter will examine the AR-15 he used in the 2018 massacre.
Jurors began their deliberations Wednesday morning and later asked for a re-read of two more days of testimony. Shortly after 17, the jury requested to see the AR-15 Nikolas Cruz, now 24, used during the shooting.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said she planned to return the firearm to the jury but was unable to because of “security concerns.” The Broward County Sheriff’s Department did not want to take the unloaded, useless firearm back into the jury room at that time.
Chief Prosecutor Michael Satz objected, saying he had seen this done in many previous cases, even calling the situation “ridiculous” and “infested.”
The judge said she was confident the situation would be resolved when the judge and attorneys returned Thursday morning at 10 a.m. 8:30 ET.
The court proceeded directly to that sentencing phase, skipping the trial phase after Cruz pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Fourteen students and three school staff were killed in the massacre, which 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.
The jury received instructions from Scherer in court Wednesday morning, about six months after jury selection first began. Opening statements for the sentencing began in July.
Jurors are sequestered during deliberations.
If jurors do not unanimously recommend Cruz receive the death penalty, he will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury recommends death, the final decision rests with Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.
To recommend death, all 12 jurors must agree on several things: First, that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that there was at least one aggravating factor — a reason Cruz should be put to death, as if the killing were particularly gruesome; cruel or cruel – and that the factor is sufficient to warrant a possible death sentence.
Jurors must then unanimously agree that aggravators outweigh mitigating circumstances — reasons Cruz should not receive the death penalty, such as the defense’s claim that he has neurological or intellectual disabilities.
Finally, if the jury agrees on these things, they must still unanimously find that Cruz should be put to death.
Jurors will consider these questions for each of the 17 counts of murder. Cruz would serve life in prison if the jury cannot unanimously agree on death on any of the charges.
On the first day of deliberations, jurors asked for a readback of at least some testimony from two experts who testified at the trial, both of whom testified over several days.
When Judge Scherer agreed to the retrial, the jurors were called back into the courtroom. A court reporter then read testimony from Dr. Paul Connor, an expert in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), testified for the defense that Cruz has the disorder along with deficits in IQ, motor skills, executive function and memory.
After first rehearing Connor’s cross-examination, the jury decided they no longer needed to hear the testimony of Dr. Robert Denney, the other witness. Denney is a clinical neuropsychologist who testified during the state’s rebuttal that Cruz does not meet the criteria for FASD, but has antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.
The jurors were once again excused to deliberate in private.
In closing arguments Tuesday, 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 struggles 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,” 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.”