PARKLAND, FL– A 12-member jury in the sentencing trial of the Parkland school gunman is expected to begin deliberations Wednesday on whether to recommend the death penalty, CNN reports.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said the jury would be seized during their deliberations.
If the jury recommends the death penalty, their decision must be unanimous or Nikolas Cruz faces life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. If the jury recommends death, the final decision rests with Judge Scherer, who can choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life in prison.
Cruz has pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that killed 14 students and three school staff. The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting in a US high school. In the years since the shooting, survivors and victims’ families have been very open about gun control.
Since Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges, the trial phase was skipped and the court proceeded directly to the sentencing phase.
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Closing arguments in the criminal trial were held on Tuesday, with the defense and prosecutors each being given two and a half hours for their closing statements. Prosecutors argued that Cruz’s decision to commit the shooting was premeditated and calculated, while Cruz’s defense attorneys presented evidence of lifelong struggles at home and at school.
“What he wanted, what his plan was and what he did was murder children at school and their caregivers,” lead prosecutor Michael Satz said Tuesday. “The appropriate punishment for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty,” he concluded.
Defense attorney Melisa McNeill, however, said Cruz was “a brain damaged, broken, mentally ill person through no fault of her own.” She pointed to the defense’s claim that Cruz’s mother used drugs and drank alcohol while his mother was pregnant with him, saying he was “poisoned” in her womb.
“And in a civilized humane society, do we kill brain-damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” asked McNeill on Tuesday. “Really? I hope not.”
Jury selection for the lengthy trial began in early April, with the opening speech for the anti-death penalty trial in July. For the past three months, prosecutors and defense attorneys have presented evidence of aggravating factors and extenuating circumstances, reasons why Cruz should or should not be executed.
As part of the prosecution’s trial over the summer, family members of the victims were given the opportunity to take a stand and offer raw, emotional testimonies about how Cruz’s actions had changed their lives forever. At one point, even members of Cruz’s defense team were brought to tears.
The defense’s case came to an unexpected end last month when – after calling just 26 witnesses out of 80 scheduled – the public defenders assigned to represent Cruz abruptly went silent, prompting the judge to admonish the team for unprofessionalism, which led to a courtroom dispute between her and the defense (the jury was absent).
Defense attorneys later filed a motion to disqualify the judge for her statements, arguing in part that they suggested the judge was not impartial and that Cruz’s right to a fair trial had been undermined. Prosecutors disagreed, writing “judicial comments, even critical or hostile in nature, are not grounds for disqualification.”
Scherer eventually turned down the request.
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