Some parents wept when 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 stoically with their arms folded across their chests. A woman who lost her daughter ran out of the courtroom sobbing and holding a handkerchief to her face.
Satz’s comments came early in the trial to determine whether Cruz is executed or serves life in prison without parole.
The prosecutor’s presentation explained how Cruz shot each of the 14 students and three staff members who died and some of the 17 who were injured. Some were shot sitting at their desks, some as they fled and others as they bled on the floor as the former Stoneman Douglas student methodically walked through a three-story building for almost 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 due to start in 2020, but it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and legal battles.
Satz called the killings cold, calculated, cruel and heinous, citing video Cruz, then 19, made three days before the shooting.
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“That’s what the defendant said, ‘Hello, my name is Nik. I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is to have at least 20 people with an AR-15 and tracer bullets . It’s gonna be a big event, and when you see me on the news, you’ll know who I am. You’re all gonna die. Oh yeah, I can’t wait,” Satz said.
Among the first witnesses was Danielle Gilbert, a junior who was in psychology class when the shooting began. The teacher told the students to get behind her desk.
“We sat 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 then saw the cellphone video that Gilbert took inside the classroom. The footage began with a girl cowering under the professor’s desk and others, including Gilbert, mostly unseen as they crouched behind. About two dozen gunshots that seemed to come from just outside the door are heard in quick succession as the fire alarm sounds. An invisible injured boy shouts twice: “Somebody help me.”
The gunshots fade away, but the students remain silent and cowered, speaking only in low voices. Finally, the voices of the police are heard approaching. The teacher stands up holding her head.
“They’re coming, they’re coming, we’re fine,” a boy whispers.
SWAT officers, armed with rifles, then burst in, wanting to know if anyone was injured. The students point and Gilbert stands up with his camera. A wounded boy and girl are executed. A dead girl lies in a pool of blood. The officers tell the students to run away. They passed two other bodies lying in the hallway before exiting into a parking lot.
His testimony over, Gilbert burst into tears. Her father put his arm around her and ushered her out of the courtroom.
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Prosecutors also presented a cellphone video from another student showing classmates crouching behind chairs as Cruz fired through the classroom door window, the bang echoing through the screams.
From the back of the courtroom, a parent of a girl who died in that classroom yelled at prosecutors to turn it off before bailiffs told the woman to shut up. The defense requested a mistrial for the explosion, but this was denied.
The jury of seven men and five women is supported by 10 alternates. It is the country’s deadliest mass shooting in front of a jury.
Nine other gunmen who killed at least 17 people died during or immediately after their shooting, either by suicide or by police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 murder of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.
It was unclear if anyone was in the courtroom to support Cruz, who was seated at the defense table between his lawyers. During Satz’s opening statement, he mostly stared at a pad of paper with a pencil in his hand, but he didn’t appear to be writing. He sometimes looked up to watch Satz or the jury, peer into the audience or whisper to his lawyers.
After Satz’s speech, Cruz’s attorneys announced that they would not make their opening statement until it was time to present their case in weeks. It’s a rare and risky strategy because it gives Satz the only say before jurors consider grisly evidence and hear testimony from survivors and victims’ parents and spouses.
When lead defender Melisa McNeill makes her statement, she’ll likely point out that Cruz is a young adult with lifelong emotional and psychological issues who allegedly suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and abuse.
This is the first death penalty trial for Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. When jurors finally get the case in the fall, they will vote 17 times, once for each of the victims, on whether to recommend capital punishment.
Each vote must be unanimous. A non-unanimous vote for one of the victims means Cruz’s sentence for that person would be life in prison. The jurors are informed that in order to vote for the death penalty, the aggravating circumstances presented by the prosecution for the victim in question must, in their judgment, prevail over the mitigating circumstances presented by the defence.
Regardless of the evidence, any juror can vote for life in prison out of pity. During jury selection, panelists declared under oath that they were able to vote for either sentence.
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