When the sentencing trial for the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 begins on Monday, a 12-person jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will receive the death penalty—or to life in prison without parole.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder—so the court proceedings will not focus on whether he committed the shooting, but what his punishment should be. In order for Cruz to be executed, the jury’s decision at his sentencing trial must be unanimous.
It comes amid a string of mass shootings in the United States, which have resulted in 21 deaths and raised questions about the Parkland massacre.
“We’ve never had a trial like this,” says Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Parkland trial represents the deadliest mass shooting to go before a jury in the U.S. “This trial is, in a sense, unprecedented,” Jarvis says.
Jarvis notes that in the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, eight of the gunmen—including those at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012—died by suicide or were killed by police.
A man is accused of murdering 23 people at Walmart in El Paso in Texas in 2019. He has not pleaded guilty to the charges and remains on trial.
Nearly 60% of mass-shooters have been killed on the spot, according to The Violence Project. This non-profit research centre focuses on violence prevention and analyzed all public mass shootings between 1966 and 2020. The project estimated that 11.5% of mass shooters were sentenced to death.
In 2017, the gunman who was convicted in Charleston of murdering nine Black members of a church in Charleston, S.C. was sentenced to execution. However, he appealed this decision.
Parkland’s trial begins
Cruz has pleaded guilty in 2017 to murder and attempted murder of 17 other counts. He was involved in an attack on his high school that left 14 dead and 3 injured students.
Defense attorneys for Cruz had requested a delay on June 3, arguing that the “wave of emotion” surrounding the Uvalde shooting would threaten Cruz’s right to a fair trial because the news “opened old wounds” for the community in Broward County, Fla., where the trial is taking place.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer who preside over the sentencing trial declined to postpone proceedings. “As tragic as these events were, the recent shooting tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde have not compromised nor negatively impacted these proceedings,” Scherer wrote in a ruling on June 30. “There has not been any negative impact to his fair trial rights and there is no basis to continue this matter.” Ultimately, a jury of seven men and five women was selected.
Defense attorneys will argue that Cruz had mental issues and that Cruz shouldn’t be executed.
“A lot is going to emerge around the perpetrator’s background, what the pathway to violence looked like for him, his state of mind,” says Jillian Peterson, co-founder of the Violence Project and an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are likely to focus on the “hard evidence” of the shooting, says Jennifer Zedalis, director of trial practice at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Witnesses from victims of the shooting and family members will be available to testify before the jury. While the prosecution intends to present hundreds upon hundreds of images and videos showing victims, defense attorneys are trying to limit how many can be used as evidence.
“It feels like if the death penalty was designed for anyone, it’s someone who’s murdered this many people,” says Peterson, who has researched the backgrounds of mass shooters. “On the other hand, I think we know from our research that these perpetrators tend to have a very strong mitigation case, in terms of what that pathway to violence looks like and trauma, mental health, suicidality, and all those things.”
Jarvis thinks it’s unlikely that Cruz will be sentenced to death, given that a death-penalty decision needs to be unanimous. Cruz can be sentenced to life imprisonment if he is convinced by only one of his defense attorneys.
“The pressure is all on the prosecution,” Jarvis says. “The chances of all 12 jurors agreeing—that’s very, very unlikely.”
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