FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida.
The prosecutor seeking to sentence Florida school gunman Nikolas Cruz to death let the facts speak for themselves as he presented his case: chilling testimonies; heartbreaking statements from parents and spouses; chilling surveillance videos; gruesome autopsy and crime scene photos; and, in a crowning glory, Thursday’s jury walked through 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 prosecutor, later closed his case against the defendant who murdered 14 students and three staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018.
Cruz’s attorneys repeatedly objected that Satz’s case went beyond what was legally permitted or necessary and was primarily intended to inflame jurors’ emotions — objections that were overruled by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.
There was no doubt that Satz would be able to prove that the murders were “cold, calculated and premeditated”, that Cruz’s actions were “heinous, atrocious or cruel” and “created a great risk for many people”. 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 weight because they must, in the unanimous opinion of the jurors, “outweigh” the mitigating factors that 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 on entering what Cruz had done. … The question running through my head was: ‘Was it too much?’ »
“He did a fantastic job,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor. “He built a case that I think gave the jury more than enough to find those aggravating factors and was not exaggerated at all.”
After a week-long hiatus, the parties will go a week without a jury argument before Judge Scherer over what evidence Cruz’s defense can present about how her birth mother’s alcoholism and drug addiction during pregnancy affected his brain and whether any defects can be seen on scans.
Jennifer Zedalis, a law professor at the University of Florida, said such arguments about fetal alcohol syndrome testing date back 20 years.
“Brain scans, MRIs, we can learn from that – the argument will be whether the evidence reaches the level of relevance and reliability to allow,” Zedalis said. She said that if the admissibility of evidence was borderline, she would expect the judge to side with Cruz’s lawyers, as appeals courts have said that “a defendant tried for his life deserves a great latitude”.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder; the trial must only decide whether the former Stoneman Douglas student is sentenced to death or life without parole. Once they begin deliberating, likely in several weeks, the jury will proceed to separate votes for each victim. For each death sentence, the jury must be unanimous or the sentence for that victim is life.
After Scherer’s rules, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill is scheduled to make her opening statement on 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 biological mother’s addictions; his severe emotional and behavioral problems that began in kindergarten and the shortcomings in his treatment; the death of his adoptive father at the age of 5; the death of his adoptive mother three months before the shooting; his alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a “trusted peer”; that he was an immature 19-year-old; and the bullying he suffered from his brother and his brother’s friends.
McNeill and his team are unlikely to downplay the seriousness of Cruz’s actions – they have repeatedly acknowledged in court that the killings were horrific and wiped away tears at some parents’ statements about their deceased child.
The defense will say, “If you send him to his death, you’re ignoring all of this and it’s just plain wrong,” Jarvis said.
Weinstein said the defense had a difficult task. The jurors all swore they could vote for death or life, based on the evidence. Even if the defense can prove some mitigating circumstances, he said, it will be difficult for these to prevail against 17 people murdered in cold blood.
“I don’t think you can paint such a nice picture of Cruz, that he’s not as bad as the prosecution 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 start. … Society created this monster and n failed to stop this monster.”
Weinstein said the prosecution will discuss whether the death penalty “isn’t appropriate in these circumstances, why do we have it? What could happen more egregious than that?”