A 12-person jury will go into a second day of deliberations to determine whether to recommend death or life in prison for the Parkland, Florida, school shooter.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer dismissed jurors Wednesday evening. They will return Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.
Nikolas Cruz, the now 24-year-old gunman, has pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed. The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting at a US high school. In the years since the shooting, survivors and victims’ families became very outspoken on gun control.
Because Cruz pleaded guilty to all counts, the trial phase was skipped and the court went directly to the sentencing phase.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, the jury requested to see the AR-15 Cruz used during the shooting. Scherer brought everyone back into the court room, telling them she had planned to send the gun back to the jury but would not be able to because of “security reasons.” The Broward County Sheriff’s Department did not want to take the unloaded, inoperable firearm back to the jury room.
Lead prosecutor Michael Satz objected, saying he has seen it done in many cases in the past. He said he was willing to talk to the sheriff’s office.
Scherer asked attorneys from the defense and the prosecution to come to the bench. After a short pause, she came back and explained that the sheriff’s office did not have a protocol for situations like this, so the jury would not be able to view the gun on Wednesday.
Satz called the situation “preposterous.”
“This is ridiculous, that’s all I’m saying,” the prosecutor said.
The judge said she was assured the situation would be resolved by the time the judge and attorneys returned Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m. ET.
The jury received instructions from Scherer in court Wednesday morning, about six months after jury selection first began. They will be sequestered during deliberations.
For jurors to recommend Cruz get a death sentence, their decision must be unanimous. Otherwise, he will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury does recommend death, the final decision rests with Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.
Within a few hours of being excused to deliberate, jurors asked for a readback of at least some testimony from two experts who testified during the trial – both of whom testified across multiple days.
The judge agreed to the readback, and jurors were called back into the courtroom, where a court reporter read one witness’s testimony Wednesday afternoon – that of Dr. Paul Connor, an expert on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), who testified for the defense Cruz has the disorder, along with deficits in IQ, motor skills, executive functioning and memory.
However, after first rehearing Connor’s cross examination, the jury decided they no longer needed to hear the testimony of the second witness, Dr. Robert Denney, a clinical neuropsychologist who testified during the state’s rebuttal that Cruz does not meet the criteria for FASD, but does have anti-social personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.
The jurors were once again excused to deliberate in private.
In closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors argued Cruz’s decision to commit the shooting was premeditated and calculated, while Cruz’s defense attorneys offered evidence of a lifetime of struggles at home and in school.
“What he wanted to do, what his plan was and what he did, was to murder children at school and their caretakers,” Satz said Tuesday. “The appropriate sentence for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty,” he concluded.
However, defense attorney Melisa McNeill said Cruz “is a brain damaged, broken, mentally ill person, through no fault of his 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?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “Do we? I hope not.”
To recommend death, jurors must unanimously agree on several things: First, that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt there was at least one aggravating factor – a reason why Cruz should be put to death, like whether the killing was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel – and that the factor is sufficient to warrant a possible death sentence.
The jurors would then need to unanimously agree that the aggravators outweigh mitigating circumstances – reasons Cruz should not receive the death penalty, such as the defense’s claim he has neurological or intellectual deficits. Finally, if the jury agrees to those things, they still would need to unanimously find that Cruz should be put to death.
Jurors will consider these questions for each of the 17 murder counts. Cruz would serve life in prison if the jury cannot unanimously agree on death for any of the counts.
Jury selection for the lengthy trial began in early April, with prosecutors’ opening statements for the death penalty trial taking place in July. Throughout the last three months, prosecutors and defense attorneys have presented evidence of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances.
As part of the prosecution’s case, family members of the victims were given the opportunity over the summer to take the stand and offer raw, emotional testimony about how Cruz’s actions had forever changed their lives. At one point, even members of Cruz’s defense team were brought to tears.
The defense’s case came to an unexpected halt last month when – having called just 26 of 80 planned witnesses – public defenders assigned to represent Cruz abruptly rested, leading the judge to admonish the team for what she said was unprofessionalism, resulting in a courtroom squabble between her and the defense (the jury was not present).
Defense attorneys would later file a motion to disqualify the judge for her comments, arguing in part they suggested the judge was not impartial and Cruz’s right to a fair trial had been undermined. Prosecutors disagreed, writing “judicial comments, even of a critical or hostile nature, are not grounds for disqualification.”
Scherer ultimately denied the motion.