FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — The prosecution spent three weeks telling jurors how Nikolas Cruz murdered 14 students and three staff at a Florida high school four years ago. Now his lawyers will have the opportunity to present why they believe he did it, in hopes of getting him sentenced to life without parole instead of death.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz’s primary public defender, is expected to deliver her opening statement on Monday, having postponed her presentation since the trial began a month ago.
She and her team will then begin to tell the life story of their 23-year-old client: her biological mother’s alcohol and cocaine abuse during her pregnancy, leading to possible fetal alcohol syndrome; his serious mental and emotional problems; his alleged sexual abuse by a “trusted peer”; the intimidation he suffered; and the death of his adoptive father when he was 5 years old and that of his adoptive mother four months before his February 14, 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
McNeill’s decision to delay his opening statement appeared to be part of a larger strategy to not deny or diminish anything prosecutors told jurors about the Cruz massacre – he pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts charged with first degree murder. This trial is only to decide his sentence; the jury of seven men and five women will consider whether the aggravating circumstances of the prosecution “outweigh” the mitigating circumstances of the defence.
The defense “is going to say, ‘Look, you saw what happened — we’re not going to argue that. It was awful, it was awful, it was awful, whatever adjectives you wanted to use,” said David S. Weinstein, Miami defense attorney and former prosecutor. But then the defense will add, “He never had a chance and, because of that, his poor victims never had a chance.”
It is the deadliest American mass shooting ever. 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.
During the prosecution, McNeill’s team never cross-examined any teacher or student who witnessed the murders and had only brief, moderate exchanges with a few other witnesses.
They questioned a teacher from a classroom where no one was shot about the lack of a security monitor in the three-story building where the killings took place. When the owner of the gun store who sold Cruz the AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle used in the murders testified, they asked what the minimum age in Florida was in 2017 to buy a rifle – 18 – and today – 21 years old.
Neither they nor prosecutors then asked the store owner why the law had changed: Cruz was 19 when the shooting happened, and the Republican-led Legislature raised the age limit in the part of a larger set of gun laws enacted in response to the shootings.
Cruz’s youth will be part of his defense and although Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has barred the defense from presenting testimony that directly blames third parties like school administrators for failing to prevent the shooting, McNeill and his team will likely attempt to make such points indirectly.
To sentence Cruz to life, the defense will only have to convince one of the 12 jurors, but it will have to do so on the 17 counts, one for each victim. It’s possible, for example, that a reluctant juror could be pressured into voting for death on victims whose surveillance video showed Cruz being shot multiple times as they lay injured and helpless.
The defense will try to overcome the appalling evidence presented by the prosecution, capped by the August 4 jurors’ visit to the fenced building that Cruz stalked for seven minutes, firing around 150 shots in the hallways and classrooms. . Jurors saw dried blood on floors and walls, bullet holes in doors and windows, and remnants of balloons, flowers and Valentine’s Day cards.
Prosecutors also presented graphic surveillance videos of the massacre; gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos of its aftermath; moving testimonies from teachers and students who have seen others die; and four days of tearful and angry statements from parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and how the death of their loved one affected their lives. Jurors also watched a video of Cruz calmly ordering an Icee cherry and blue raspberry minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a prison guard.
It’s unclear how long the defense presentation will last, but they recently said in court that it will last after Labor Day in two weeks. The prosecution can then present a rebuttal brief before it goes to the jury.