Indiana Daily Student

‘Hunting his victims.’ As trial ends, state makes case for death penalty for Parkland shooter

Nikolas Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who killed 17 people, is seen on a closed-circuit television screen Oct. 11, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during the penalty phase of his trial.
Nikolas Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who killed 17 people, is seen on a closed-circuit television screen Oct. 11, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during the penalty phase of his trial.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — After a nearly three-month trial, a prosecutor on Tuesday made the case for executing Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who murdered 14 students and three staff members in Florida’s deadliest school shooting.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Mike Satz told jurors that Cruz meticulously planned — he researched mass shootings, purchased an exhaustive supply of equipment and bullets, and took an Uber ride to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018.

“The plan was goal directed. It was calculated,” Satz told jurors. “It was purposeful, and it was a systematic massacre.”

Jurors heard the state’s closing argument more than four years after Cruz, a former MSD student, stalked the halls of the freshman building, mowing down victims and shooting through the windows of classroom doors. Satz said he was “hunting his victims” and returned to shoot wounded students on the first and third floors of the freshman building.

“He went and finished them off. He made sure they were dead,” Satz said.

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Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty last year, and jurors will only be weighing whether to sentence him to death, or life in prison. The trial is the deadliest U.S. mass shooting case to go to trial — most often, mass shooters are killed by police, or kill themselves.

The Broward Public Defender’s Office later Tuesday is expected to argue that Cruz should be spared execution because he suffered from fetal-alcohol spectrum disorder caused by his hard-drinking, drug-addicted biological mother, leading him to a life of violent outbursts and troubling behavior in school.

The seven-man, five-woman jury is expected to deliberate on Wednesday. For Cruz to get the death penalty, jurors must be unanimous in their recommendation to the judge, who would ultimately deliver the sentence. Anything else will result in a sentence of life in prison.

The Feb. 14, 2018, massacre was a grimly seminal moment in Florida history, leading to a wave of student gun-control activism, the passing of a law restricting some access to firearms and scrutiny on the police response to the mass shooting. The rampage also led to criticism of how Broward’s school district handled Cruz’s case — in the aftermath, the former superintendent was charged with perjury, and four school board members were suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis over the mismanagement of a campus security program.

There was never any doubt that Cruz was guilty.

He was arrested within hours of the shooting, identified as the gunman by eyewitnesses and via video surveillance, and confessed to police detectives.

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Within days of his arrest, the Broward Public Defender’s Office acknowledged his guilt, and offered to have him plead guilty immediately if prosecutors waived the death penalty.

Then-Broward State Attorney Satz chose to press forward with seeking the death penalty.

Even though he left office after four decades, Satz was hired to lead the prosecution team. In October 2021, Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, setting the stage for a jury to be chosen for the “penalty phase” of the trial.

To secure a death sentence in Florida, prosecutors have to show the crime had “aggravating” factors that outweighed any “mitigating” factors. In Cruz’s case, prosecutors say those aggravating factors included the “heinous, atrocious and cruel” nature of the murder, the calculated nature of the massacre, that he knowingly creating a “great risk of death to many persons,” and his conviction for battering a Broward deputy months after his arrest.

During the trial, prosecutors called more than 90 witnesses that included students and school staff who survived the massacre, some of whom suffered debilitating wounds. Jurors saw the graphic video surveillance footage of Cruz mowing down his victims on the first and third floors of the freshman building.

Forensic pathologists also told jurors about the autopsies that revealed the gaping wounds caused by the high-velocity bullets fired by Cruz’s rifle. The jury also viewed videos Cruz made on his cell phone before the attack, vowing to kill at least 20 people and garner notoriety as the “next school shooter.”

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In heart-wrenching testimony, relatives of the murdered took the witness stand to remember their loved ones — and detail the emptiness and depression caused by the violent, unexpected deaths. And on the final day of the state’s primary case, jurors toured the site of the massacre, the freshman building still stained with blood, and littered with shattered glass and discarded Valentine’s Day cards and gifts.

The defense case lasted 11 days and featured 26 witnesses. Among them: Cruz’s biological sister, who did not grow up with him but detailed their mother’s alcohol consumption and drug usage; educators who witnessed Cruz’s outbursts and violence toward other young students; and psychologists and psychiatrists who dealt with him during his school years.

The final defense witness on Sept. 14 was a nationally known fetal alcohol researcher who testified that Cruz’s birth mother drank heavily during her pregnancy with the future school shooter. Prosecutors, in a rebuttal case, called a neuropsychologist to the stand in an attempt to show that Cruz was faking test scores to get a diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

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