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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Rafael Olmeda

Life or death for Parkland school gunman: It’s in the jury’s hands now

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Nearly three months after testimony started in the sentencing trial of confessed Parkland gunman Nikolas Cruz, the defendant’s fate is officially in the hands of a jury — seven men and five women who just asked a Broward judge for hours of testimony to be read back in court.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer read the set of instructions Wednesday morning, advising the jury that they are to decide 17 times whether Cruz, 24, deserves the death penalty for the murders he committed on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Every victim’s name was read. Each senseless, inexcusable death must be weighed independently. Every murder can be considered as an aggravating factor for the other 16. Cruz, the confident, purposeful shooter who bragged about his plans in selfie videos he recorded before the shooting, appeared far less confident as the jury was instructed on the law.

He decided the final fate of 17 victims on Valentine’s Day 2018. He does not get to decide his own.

That responsibility, for now, falls on the 12 jurors who have sat through months of testimony, who pored over autopsy and crime scene photos, and who followed in the footsteps of the gunman as they examined the crime scene, stepping over the broken glass and into the classrooms where students huddled in fear, the bloodstains of their slain and injured classmates still present on the floors and walls.

In court Wednesday, the jurors asked to once again hear the cross-examination of defense expert Paul Connor and the full testimony of prosecution expert Robert Denney, two men who clashed on the existence and long-term effect of brain damage that was suffered by the defendant as a result of his mother’s drinking and drug use while Cruz was in her womb.

Connor testified over two days, Denney over three. When jurors finished hearing Connor’s testimony, they rescinded their request to hear Denney’s and returned to the deliberation room.

The math behind a life or death decision is more complicated than it seems. For Cruz to be sentenced to death, each juror must agree that Cruz deserves to be executed for at least one victim.

It could be Peter Wang, the final victim, who watched helplessly on the third floor as Cruz approached and executed Meadow Pollack, Cara Loughran and Joaquin Oliver before reaching him and pulling the trigger of his AR-15 style rifle over and over and over again, ending Wang’s life.

“His head exploded,” Cruz told a psychologist later.

Or jurors can find he deserves death for all 17, from Gina Montalto on the first floor to Wang on the third. All were victims of his violent rampage. All were innocent. There was no defense against their murders.

The death of any victim is enough to send Cruz to death row.

For the defendant to escape that fate, at least one juror would have to vote no to death, and that juror would have to hold fast 17 times.

The defense is hoping that evidence introduced at trial showing Cruz was “broken, brain damaged and mentally ill” from birth elicits enough sympathy from at least one juror to spare the defendant’s life.

There is no timeline for the jury’s deliberations. They could come back Wednesday afternoon, or they could take days. The families of the victims, some of whom sat in court for ever day of testimony, have been silent in court about their wishes. On social media, they are all but united for the death penalty, with prominent exceptions (the brother of victim Carmen Schentrup opposes death, but her parents favor it).

Among those in the courtroom, there is unrelenting agreement on one issue: Whatever happens to the Parkland gunman, it will not be his choice. It will be a jury’s.

The prosecution’s closing arguments ended Tuesday with Satz reciting the names of the dead: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Christopher Hixon, 49; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alexander Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.

Cruz pleaded guilty nearly a year ago to the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, willing to accept a life sentence without forcing Broward County to endure the spectacle of a trial when his guilt was never truly in doubt.

The jury will be sequestered during its deliberation. At the end of the day Wednesday, jurors were taken to an undisclosed hotel, with deliberations to resume Thursday.


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