The sentencing trial for the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., more than four years ago is set to begin on Monday.
After nearly three months of jury selection, jurors must decide whether Nikolas Cruz, 23, gets a life sentence in prison or is put to death. He has already pleaded guilty to all charges.
Prosecutors are seeking the death sentence, while Cruz’s defense team is hoping for the only other option: life in prison with no possibility of parole. (In Florida, life sentences don’t allow for parole.)
A jury of seven men and five women will hear witness testimony and review evidence, during a trial that’s expected to last for months.
The jury must be unanimous in deciding to impose the death penalty. If a single juror disagrees, Cruz will be sentenced to life.
The trial has faced repeated delays
When he appeared in court last fall, Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty to 17 charges of first-degree murder and an additional 17 charges of attempted murder. At the time, he addressed victims’ family members to apologize for his actions.
“I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day,” he said. “And that if I would get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others.”
In the pre-trial hearings, lead prosecutor Michael Satz laid out Cruz’s actions on Valentine’s Day in 2018. The former student, who’d been expelled from Marjory Stoneman a year earlier, took an Uber to the school and began firing an AR-15 -style rifle at students in hallways and classrooms.
He killed 14 students, three staff members and seriously injured 17 others. He left the scene by hiding among fleeing students and was arrested soon after blocks away.
The sentencing trial has faced a series of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic and attorneys’ requests. Cruz’s defense attorneys last month requested another delay following May’s mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, arguing that the tragedy in which 19 students and two teachers were killed triggered emotions that would unfairly influence the trial. The judge rejected the motion.
The shooting spurred a wave of advocacy from the victims
The tragedy inspired a wave of youth-driven advocacy to push for gun control. Survivors organized the nationwide March for Our Lives rallies in 2018 and again last month after the shooting in Uvalde.
A month after the shooting, Florida passed a law raising the minimum age to buy long guns such as rifles to 21. Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the shooting, had legally bought the AR-15-style rifle he used in the massacre. The law also provided more funding for security at schools and also allowed law enforcement to seize the weapons of anyone deemed a threat to themselves or others.
As a result of the law’s passage, law enforcement officials say that over the last four years, Florida has issued more than 8,000 red flag orders to confiscate firearms.
In 2021, Parkland shooting victims and their families agreed to a $25 million settlement with the Broward County school district, after suing the district for negligence in failing to prevent the attack.
After Monday’s sentencing trial starts, the jury will also hear statements from the families of those who were killed.
What to expect
The defense is expected to argue that the gunman was impaired by mental illness. Stephen Harper, a longtime public defender who specializes in Florida death penalty cases, previously told NPR that the evidence presented may include electroencephalogram tests and other forms of brain scans.
“His mother was apparently an alcoholic and a drug abuser,” Harper said. “And in utero, he would have been exposed to very serious things that could have clearly affected his mental capacity. So those things are very relevant.”
Legal experts, however, say that the premeditated nature of the killings will be a tough challenge for the defense.
In a video recorded before the shooting that later surfaced, the gunman described his plans to kill people, and talked about his “lone life” and hatred for “everyone and everything.”
The jury will be shown gut-wrenching videos taken by students of some of their classmates’ final moments, as well as eyewitness testimonies of survivors.