FORT LAUDERDALE – Attorneys reached a verdict Thursday in the sentencing hearing for Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter who pleaded guilty last year to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and 12 jurors will recommend that Cruz, then 19 and now 24, be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
If the jury recommends death, the decision must be unanimous, District Judge Elizabeth Scherer will make the final decision.
Jurors came to a decision after no more than a day of discussion. Their recommendation is expected to come at 10:30 a.m. ET, according to court staff.
Jury to decide: Life in prison or death
The hearings began on Wednesday with the jury sequestered in a hotel unannounced until they reached a hearing. The jury of seven men and five women has two options: Death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. If jurors decide to execute him, Judge Elizabeth Scherer can follow the recommendation or choose to sentence him to life.
For Cruz to receive the death penalty, jurors must agree on at least one person and decide that “aggravating” factors — the brutality involved in the crime, for example — outweigh any “mitigating” factors, such as the defendant’s mental state.
Florida has not carried out the death penalty since 2019.
Prosecutor says Cruz was ‘hunting victims’
Lead prosecutor Michael Satz painted a picture of Cruz as a serial killer who masterminded the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre and has antisocial personality disorder, not fetal alcohol syndrome as attorneys say. Witnesses testified that Cruz’s birth mother drank drugs and alcohol while pregnant.
With family members of the victims lining the courtroom, Satz recounted the gruesome, bloody horrors that took place on the first and third floors of the new school building, vividly describing to jurors the deaths of students and staff.
Cruz, Satz said, was “hunting his people” and even returned to kill students such as Peter Yang and Joaquin Oliver who suffered initial non-fatal gunshot wounds, according to medical examiners who testified during the four-month trial. Read more here.
Defense says Cruz ‘broken and mentally damaged’
In her closing remarks, Deputy Public Defender Melisa McNeill asked the jury to consider not only Cruz’s crime but also his background, describing Cruz as a “broken, brain-damaged, mentally ill young man” who was “poisoned” in the stomach through his. frequent use of drugs and alcohol by mothers during pregnancy.
McNeill addressed many of his arguments on Cruz’s childhood, recounting testimony from witnesses explaining that Cruz’s late biological mother, Brenda Woodward, smoked cigarettes, drugs and drank alcohol during her pregnancy.
During the trial, two defense witnesses testified that Cruz suffered severe brain damage due to his biological mother’s alcoholism.
McNeill urged jurors to consider Cruz’s history of mental illness in making their decision, and argued that Cruz should be given a life sentence rather than the death penalty. He urged jurors to choose “courage over comfort” and told them that their decision should not be based on anger, revenge or hatred.
“It’s the right thing to do,” McNeill said of the 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 worst shooting to go to trial
The killing is the deadliest mass shooting ever prosecuted in the United States, according to the Associated Press. Nine other people in the US have shot and killed at least 17 people who died during or after their suicide attacks or shootings with police. A suspect in the 2019 murder of 23 people at El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.