USA Today – FORT LAUDERDALE — Jurors on Thursday recommended life in prison without parole for Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to killing 17 people in the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Cruz. But for a death sentence, the jury had to be unanimous on at least one victim and decide that “aggravating” factors — the cruelty involved in a crime, for instance — outweighed any “mitigating” factors, such as a defendant’s mental state. While jurors found that the aggravating evidence was sufficient to warrant a possible death penalty for the gunman, at least one believed the mitigating factors outweighed aggravating ones.
The 12-person jury announced the sentencing decision Thursday morning after a little more than a day of deliberation.
Cruz, then 19 and now 24, pleaded guilty in 2021 to killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
This story will be updated.
Jury to decide: Life in prison or execution
Deliberations began Wednesday with the jury sequestered at an undisclosed hotel until they reach a decision. The panel of seven men and five women had two choices: Death or life in prison without the chance of parole. If the jury opts for execution, Judge Scherer can follow the recommendation or choose instead to sentence him to life.
Florida has not carried out a death sentence since 2019.
Prosecution says Cruz was ‘hunting victims’
Lead prosecutor Michael Satz painted a picture of Cruz as a cold-blooded murder who meticulously planned out the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre and has antisocial personality disorder, not fetal alcohol syndrome as defense attorneys claim. Witnesses testified that Cruz’s birth mother consumed drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant.
With family members of the victims packing the courtroom, Satz repeated gruesome, bloody details of the horror that took place on the first and third floors of the school’s freshman building, recounting vividly to jurors how the students and staff members died.
Cruz, Satz said, was “hunting his victims” and even returned to kill students such as Peter Yang and Joaquin Oliver whose initial gunshot wounds were not fatal, according to medical examiners who testified during the four-month trial
Defense says Cruz was ‘broken and brain-damaged’
In her closing remarks, Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill asked jurors to consider not only Cruz’s crime but also his personal history, describing Cruz as a “broken, brain-damaged, mentally ill young man” who was “poisoned” in the womb through his birth mother’s frequent use of drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy.
McNeill focused much of her argument on Cruz’s early childhood, recounting testimony from witnesses describing how Cruz’s late biological mother, Brenda Woodward, smoked cigarettes and drugs and drank beer while she was pregnant.