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Opening Statements Underway in Parkland School Shooter Death Penalty Trial

Opening statements were underway in the sentencing trial for the man who killed 17 people and wounded 17 others in the Parkland high school shooting more than four years ago.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys began to make their cases Monday morning to jurors who will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to death or get life in prison for the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three staff members dead.

Cruz, now 23, pleaded guilty in October to those murders and 17 counts of attempted murder, so the jurors will only decide his punishment. They must be unanimous for Cruz to get the death penalty — if at least one votes for life, that will be Cruz’s sentence.

Lead prosecutor Mike Satz highlighted Cruz’s brutality as he stalked a three-story classroom building and fired his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms. Cruz sometimes walked back to wounded victims and killed them with a second volley of shots.

The prosecutor described Cruz as “cold, calculated, manipulative and deadly,” citing a video Cruz made three days before the massacre.

“This is what the defendant said: ‘Hello, my name is Nik. I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 and some tracer rounds. It’s going to be a big event, and when you see me on the news, you’ll know who I am. You’re all going to die. Ah yeah, I can’t wait.’”

About 50 family members of the victims were in the courtroom, some couples holding hands. Some parents teared up as Satz described the deaths of their children. One mother, crying, got up and left. Others sat stoically, their arms folded across their chests.

It wasn’t clear if anyone was present to support Cruz, who sat at the defense table between his attorneys. He mostly looked down at a pad of paper with a pencil in his hand, but he did not appear to write. He would sometimes look up to stare at Satz or the jury, peer at the audience or whisper to his lawyers.

The sentencing is expected to last around four months. It took nearly three months to select the seven men and five women plus 10 alternates who will decide Cruz’s fate. The process began with some 1,800 candidates.

The jurors currently on the main panel are two banking executives and two technology workers, a probation officer, a human resources professional and a Walmart store stock supervisor. Also included are a librarian, a medical claims adjuster, a legal assistant, a customs officer and a retired insurance executive. The defense used a late peremptory challenge as alternates were being chosen to remove a retired health care executive who had originally been seated on the main panel.

The selection process was upended several times. One day, the sheriff’s deputies who guard the courtroom thought some potential jurors were about to attack Cruz and pulled him to safety as they quickly removed the threatening panelists.

NBC 6’s Julia Bagg has more on what to expect as the penalty phase begins.

On another day, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who’s presiding over the case, had to dismiss a group of potential jurors because one wore a T-shirt referencing the shooting that supported the victims and survivors. Selection also was delayed for two weeks when lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill contracted COVID-19.

The panel will have a task never faced by a U.S. jury — no American mass shooter who killed at least 17 people has ever made it to trial. Nine others died during or immediately after their shooting attacks, killed either by police or themselves. The suspect in the 2019 slaying of 23 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.

The jurors will be exposed to graphic evidence, including crime scene and autopsy photos and tour the three-story classroom building where Cruz methodically stalked the halls, shooting at anyone in front of him and into classrooms. It has not been cleaned since the shooting and remains bloodstained and bullet-pocked, with Valentine’s Day gifts strewn about.

In the end, jurors will have to decide whether the aggravating factors such as Cruz’s multiple victims, his planning, the terror he created and the cruelty he showed outweigh such mitigating circumstances as his long history of mental and emotional problems, his possible sexual abuse and the death of his parents.

“Finally,” said Lori Alhadeff, who wants Cruz executed for murdering her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa. “I hope for swift action to hold him responsible.”

All victim parents and family members who have spoken publicly have said directly or indirectly they want Cruz sentenced to death.

File source

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