Prosecutors seeking the death penalty for the gunman who killed 17 people in a Florida parkland massacre detailed for jurors Monday how Nikolas Cruz coldly mowed down his victims, returning to some when they were wounded to finish them off with a second volley.
Some parents cried as prosecutor Mike Satz described in his opening statement how Cruz killed their children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Others sat stunned, their arms crossed over their chests. A woman who lost her daughter fled the courthouse crying, clutching a tissue to her face.
Satz’s comments came early in the trial to determine whether Cruz should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The prosecutor’s presentation went over how Cruz shot each of the 14 students and three staff members who died and some of the 17 who were wounded. Some were shot while sitting at their desks, some fled and some lay bleeding on the floor as the former Stoneman Douglas student methodically rampaged through a three-story building for nearly seven minutes with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murder and attempted murder and is only contesting his sentence. The trial, which is expected to last four months, was scheduled to begin in 2020, but was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and legal battles.
Citing a video of Cruz, then 19, three days before the shooting, Satz called the killings cold, calculated, cruel and heinous.
“What the defendant said was: ‘Hello, my name is Nick. 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 will all die. Ah yes, I can’t wait,” Satz said.
Among the first witnesses was Daniel Gilbert, a junior who was in a psychology class when the shooting began. The teacher asked the students to go behind his desk.
“We were sitting like sitting ducks. We had no way to protect ourselves,” said Gilbert, who is now a student at the University of Central Florida.
The jury was then shown cellphone video taken inside Gilbert’s classroom. The footage begins with a girl crouching under the teacher’s desk and others, including Gilbert, mostly unseen as they crouch behind it. About two dozen shots that appeared to be coming from just outside the door were heard in quick succession as the fire alarm went off. An unseen injured boy shouts twice, “Somebody help me.
“The gunshots go farther, but the students stay quiet and huddled, talking only in whispers. Finally, the voices of police officers are heard nearby. The teacher is standing holding his head.
“They’re coming, they’re coming, we’re okay,” a boy whispers.
SWAT officers, with rifles, then burst in, demanding to know if anyone was hurt. Students point and Gilbert stands with his camera. A wounded boy and girl are carried. A dead girl lies in a pool of blood. Officers told the students to run out. They pass two more bodies lying in the hallway before heading into the parking lot.
At the end of his testimony, Gilbert broke down in tears. Her father put his arm around her and led her out of the court.
Prosecutors also presented another student’s cellphone video that showed classmates sitting behind chairs as Cruz fired through the classroom door window, the bangs echoing with screams.
From the back of the courtroom, a relative of one of the girls who died in that classroom yelled for prosecutors before bailiffs told the woman to shut up. The defense requested a mistrial for the explosion, but it was denied.
The seven-man, five-woman jury is supported by 10 alternates. It is the nation’s deadliest mass shooting to go before a jury.
Nine other gunmen who killed at least 17 people died by suicide or police gunfire during or shortly after their shootings. The suspect in the 2019 killings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.
It was not clear if anyone was in the courtroom to support Cruz, who sat at the defense table between his attorneys. During Satz’s opening remarks, he mostly looked at a pad of paper with a pencil in his hand, but he didn’t appear to be writing. He occasionally looked at Satz or the jury, glanced at the audience, or whispered to his lawyers.
After Satz spoke, Cruz’s lawyers announced that they would not make their opening statements until after it was time to present their case. It’s a rare and risky strategy because it gives Satz the only say before jurors examine gruesome evidence and hear testimony from survivors and victims’ parents and spouses.
When lead defender Melissa McNeil gives her statement, she will likely emphasize that Cruz is a young adult with lifelong mental and emotional problems allegedly caused by fetal alcohol syndrome and abuse.
This is the first death penalty trial for Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. When jurors finally read the case, they will vote 17 times, once for each victim, on whether to recommend the death penalty.
Every vote must be unanimous. A unanimous vote in favor of one of the victims meant Cruz’s sentence would be life in prison for that person. Jurors are told that in order to vote for the death penalty, the aggravating circumstances presented for the victim in question by the prosecution must, in their judgment, outweigh the mitigating factors presented by the defense.
Regardless of the evidence, any judge can vote for life in prison without mercy. During jury selection, panelists said under oath that they were able to vote on either sentence.