On Thursday morning, shortly after beginning their second day of deliberations, the jury in Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty trial reached a decision on whether to sentence the Parkland school shooter to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
At 10:30 a.m. ET, the jury’s recommendation is expected to be read aloud in court.
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the February 2018 shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which killed 14 students and three school staff members and injured 17 others.
Under Florida law, jurors must be unanimous in order to recommend a death sentence, or Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison. If the jury recommends death, the final decision on Cruz’s sentence will be made by Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who will have the option of following the jury’s recommendation or sentencing the gunman, now 24, to life in prison.
Cruz’s trial moved directly to the sentencing phase after he pleaded guilty last year in the 2018 massacre, which was the deadliest mass shooting at a US high school. The recommendation comes after a months-long sentencing trial, which began about six months after jury selection began.
The announcement that jurors had reached a decision on their recommendation came shortly after Scherer announced that the weapon Cruz used would be sent to jurors for examination.
Scherer had previously stated that she couldn’t allow it for “security reasons.” When the panel requested to see the weapon shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Scherer stated that the Broward County Sheriff’s Department did not want to return the unloaded, inoperable firearm to the jury room at that time.
The problem was resolved by Thursday morning, with Scherer stating that the jury would see the weapon without its firing pin. Otherwise, the gun would appear as it did when Cruz used it, according to Scherer. Neither party objected.
To reach a recommendation, jurors must consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances – reasons why Cruz should or should not be executed – presented by the prosecution and defense during the trial.
The state argued that Cruz’s decision to carry out the shooting was not only particularly heinous or cruel, but also premeditated and calculated, and not related to any neurological or intellectual deficits, as the defense claims. Prosecutors detailed Cruz’s meticulous planning for the shooting, as well as comments he made online expressing his desire to commit mass murder.
The shooter’s defense attorneys claimed in their case that Cruz had neurodevelopmental disorders caused by prenatal alcohol exposure, and they presented evidence and witnesses claiming his birth mother used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him. The defense claimed that Cruz’s adoptive mother was not open about this fact with medical and mental health professionals or educators, preventing him from receiving appropriate interventions.
To recommend death, all 12 jurors must agree on the following points: First, the state established beyond a reasonable doubt that there was at least one aggravating factor, and that the factor was sufficient to justify a possible death sentence.
Jurors were called back into the courtroom after Judge Scherer agreed to the readback. A court reporter then read the cross examination of Dr. Paul Connor, a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) expert who testified for the defense that Cruz has the disorder, as well as deficits in IQ, motor skills, executive functioning, and memory – elements that would support the defense’s mitigators and a life sentence.
Prosecutors pressed Connor on his testing of Cruz and questioned his assessment of Cruz’s capabilities, particularly his visual-spatial skills, during the cross examination in September. Cruz earned a sharpshooter badge while on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas JROTC team, which required him to fire a pellet and hit increasingly smaller targets from 10 meters away, according to lead prosecutor Michael Satz.
Prosecutors argued in closing arguments Tuesday that Cruz’s decision to commit the shooting was deliberate and well-planned, while Cruz’s defense attorneys presented evidence of a lifetime of struggles at home and in school.
Cruz, on the other hand, “is a brain damaged, broken, mentally ill person, through no fault of his own,” according to defense attorney Melisa McNeill. She cited the defense’s assertion that Cruz’s mother used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him, claiming he was “poisoned” in her womb.