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Parkland gunman’s death penalty trial begins as U.S. reels from mass shootings

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz looks down as prosecutor Michael J. Satz delivers an opening statement in the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on July 18. (Carline Jean/Pool/Reuters)
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The terrifying sound of gunfire from a high-powered rifle and the screams of children echoed through a South Florida courtroom Monday as prosecutors presented videos to a jury that will decide whether the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago should be sentenced to death.

Some family members of the victims bolted out in distress as recordings were played capturing students crying out for help. Others clutched one another and sobbed. And the 23-year-man responsible for all of this buried his head into his hands, appearing to signal he felt at least some remorse for his actions.

On the opening day of Nikolas Cruz’s sentencing trial, the full horror and trauma of the nation’s mass shooting epidemic began to unfold in a courthouse in Broward County, Fla., reinforcing how a community never really heals.

“We were just sitting — kind of like sitting ducks,” said Danielle Gilbert, a former student at the school who captured one of the videos shared at the proceeding. “We had no way to protect ourselves.”

Prosecutors delivered a chilling minute-by-minute timeline of how Cruz carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history when he was 19 — setting the stage for an emotional trial expected to last for months. A jury of seven men and five women is being asked to decide whether he should receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. He has already pleaded guilty.

The sentencing portion of Cruz’s trial comes as the United States reels from a spate of mass shootings that have renewed the debate around gun laws and sparked furor as people are shot dead at places meant to be safe — including schools. A massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., left 19 students and two teachers dead in May.

Most gunmen in high-profile shootings are either killed by law enforcement officers or take plea deals — avoiding a public airing of all of the evidence. Cruz’s sentencing will give Americans a rare look into just how brutal and destructive a mass shooting is by showing in detail how it unfolded.

“I think what we are about to see is really going to be eye-opening,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami lawyer and former state and federal prosecutor. “For people across the country who stand on both sides of the aisle about assault rifles, and what is going on in this country, they are going to hear what happens when someone takes an assault rifle into the school and guns down 17 people.”

During his opening statement, Broward County prosecutor Michael J. Satz accused Cruz of conducting a “cold, calculating, manipulative and deadly” attack that involved gruesome and shocking levels of violence. The jury must unanimously agree that the gunman showed such an extreme depravity for human life that he should be executed — or find that the murders include at least one of several other “aggravating factors” that can potentially result in the death penalty. Even if they do, they can still weigh other possible “mitigating circumstances” that would cause them to instead spare Cruz from capital punishment.

Cruz’s legal team waived its right to deliver an opening statement, saying it will start presenting its case to the jury at a later date. During the proceeding, Cruz wore a gray and black sweater, and his face was partially obscured by a face mask. He frequently scribbled onto a piece of paper. But at one point, the graphic screams on the videos appeared to overwhelm him. He stared down and covered his eyes with both of his hands.

A few minutes later, after extensive off-the-record discussions between Cruz’s defense attorneys and prosecutors, the judge called for an extended recess.

Like other recent shootings, the massacre in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland on Valentine’s Day in 2018 drew outrage and fueled calls for stricter gun laws. Students and some parents organized a massive march and launched a nationwide campaign calling for assault weapons to be outlawed. Other parents called for new policies to arm teachers in the classroom.

As they prepared to relive the anguish of losing children, friends and students, some lamented that many of their demands are still unmet.

“One week ago today I was at the @White House to celebrate [President Biden] signing gun safety legislation,” Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-daughter, Jaime, in the shooting, wrote on Twitter. “Today, I am at the Courthouse for the start of the penalty phase of the criminal trial of the person who murdered my daughter with an AR 15. This is the reality of gun violence.”

In a detailed presentation, Satz told jurors that Cruz, a former student at the school, planned his attack for months. Police recovered a video from his cellphone in which he gloated about it. The recording was taped three days before he rode in an Uber to the school and carried out the attack.

“Hello, my name is Nick. I am going to be the next school shooter of 2018,” he said in the video, according to Satz. “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 will know who I am. You are all going to die.”

After arriving at the school’s “1200 Wing” at 2:19 p.m., Cruz walked a few yards and then encountered a student who was leaving the bathroom on the first floor.

“You better get out of here. Something bad is about to happen,” Cruz responded.

That student fled, but four others were standing in the hallway. Cruz opened fire, striking all four members of the group.

“At 2:21 and 33 seconds, the massacre begins,” Satz told jurors.

Over the next six minutes and 22 seconds, Cruz would shoot at students and faculty members who were either in their hallway or a classroom. Many classroom doors included 8-by-42-inch windows. Even though most doors were locked, Cruz often shot through those windows, Satz said.

Satz noted that some of Cruz’s victims huddled together in hallways or classroom alcoves after being shot, but Cruz returned a few minutes later and fired even more rounds into their bodies. Cruz, who was armed with an assault-style rifle and wearing a tactical vest, fired 139 rounds during his rampage.

After brutally shooting whomever he could on the third floor of the school, Cruz laid down his rifle and took off his vest, leaving both in a stairwell. He then fled the school, blending in with other students who were evacuating the campus because of a fire alarm. The bullets bounced around the school with such force they triggered it to sound.

Cruz was arrested at about 3 p.m. after stopping by a local Subway restaurant and McDonald’s for refreshments, Satz told jurors.

Some relatives of the victims sobbed in the courtroom as prosecutors laid out their case. Others abruptly stood up and ran out of the courtroom when a video aired that included the sound of students crying and shouting out in pain during the shooting.

In all, Cruz killed 14 students, a teacher, the school athletic director and a football coach. One 15-year-old student had been shot 13 times, Satz said. Another 17 people were injured in the shooting.

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Some of the most agonizing testimony Monday came from two former students and a teacher who lived through the attack.

During her testimony, Gilbert said she was in her fourth-period class when she heard several gunshots. She said students in the classroom initially ran toward the exterior window, but then the teacher ushered them behind her desk.

Cruz then approached the classroom, firing through its window. He struck four students, one fatally, in the classroom, Gilbert said.

“My initial instinct was to pick up my phone and start recording,” Gilbert told the courtroom. “So I took several videos of what was happening.”

As the prosecutor played the videos, tears rolled down Gilbert’s face.

“Someone help me,” one boy yells in one of the recordings. “Window,” someone else says, as others can be heard moaning and panting.

Cruz’s legal team is expected to ask jurors to spare his life because he had turbulent family upbringing and had been receiving mental health counseling. Cruz’s mother died in 2017, and he had been living with a foster family when he carried out his attack.

During her opening instructions to the jury, Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said that under Florida law jurors will first have to unanimously decide whether Cruz’s attack included one of seven possible “aggravating factors” for a capital crime.

His brother confessed to gunning down 17 people in Parkland. But he’s the only family Zach Cruz has left.

Under Florida law, the potential aggravating factors that jurors are weighing include: whether the defendant had previously been convicted of a violent felony; that the defendant knowingly created great risk to a large number of people; and/or that a murder was especially “heinous, atrocious or cruel.” Satz said Cruz’s crime encompasses all seven factors in question.

Although Cruz did not previously have a violent criminal record, Satz said the murder or attempted murder of any of the 34 victims qualifies. The prosecutor also argued that Cruz committed his crime during a burglary because he was a former student who was not authorized to be on school grounds.

“You will see these aggravating factors far outweigh any mitigating circumstance,” Satz said.

Although Weinstein, the legal expert, expects much of the testimony to be traumatic for the victims’ family members, he said the sentence, when handed down, could also help to bring them some closure. Nonetheless, the trial will be agonizing.

“This is not just going to be surveillance videos and gunshots,” he said. “[Prosecutors] are going to be talking to medical examiners about how the students actually died and how much suffering they had to go through before they actually died.”

Weinstein expects Cruz’s defense team will talk extensively about Cruz’s upbringing, including his late mother’s alleged alcoholism while pregnant with Cruz. He also expects defense attorneys to ask the jury to consider Cruz’s age at the time of his rampage as well as his overall mental health.

Still, Weinstein noted that Cruz is on trial for 17 separate homicide charges, any one of which could result in the death penalty.

“If the evidence in the 17 homicide cases are so overwhelming, it’s going to be hard for [defense attorneys] to overcome that,” Weinstein said. “But it’s only going to take one juror to say that is not appropriate, but that juror also has do that 17 times.”

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