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A jury will decide if the Parkland gunman gets the death penalty

Rhona Wise, AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Flowers, candles and mementos sit outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 27, 2018. Monday, the sentencing trial begins for the gunman who killed 17 people and injured 17 others more than four years ago.

More than four years after killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Nikolas Cruz goes on trial Monday.

The troubled, former student has already pleaded guilty to all charges. Jurors will decide whether he receives life in prison or the death penalty. Jury selection, beginning Monday, is expected to take weeks, but when arguments begin, the prosecution will take jurors through events that will likely already be familiar to them.

It's expected to be an intense, emotional trial. If the defense finds it too difficult to seat an impartial jury in Broward County, attorneys may ask the judge for a change of venue, moving the trial to another location in Florida. Legal experts say that carries its own risks though. In such a high-profile case, it may be hard to find jurors anywhere in the state who don't already have opinions.

What happened Feb. 14, 2018

It was Valentine's Day in 2018 when the 19-year-old took an Uber to the high school in Parkland, not far from Ft. Lauderdale. He had been expelled a year earlier and had a history of emotional and behavioral problems. Entering the building through an unlocked door, he began firing his AR-15 style rifle in the hallways and into classrooms.

After shooting dozens of people, Cruz left his weapon behind and escaped as part of the crowd evacuating the school. He was arrested soon afterward several blocks away.

He left 14 students and 3 adults dead and at least 17 other students seriously injured.

"We heard bop, bop, bop, bop," explained freshman Kelsey Friend a day after the shootings. She said her teacher, Scott Beigel, opened a classroom door to let her and other students inside. "I thought he was behind me, but he was not. He did, unfortunately, pass away."

Beigel was one of the 17 killed. The tragedy immediately raised questions about the law enforcement response to the shootings, about missed warning signs that Cruz was planning an attack and about laws that allowed a troubled teen to own a gun. The day after the shootings, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said those questions would have to wait. "Right now," he said, "the focus of the FBI and the Broward Sheriff's office is on the successful prosecution of this killer."

Repercussions beyond the gunman

The prosecution has moved slowly but in the aftermath of the shootings, there were many other repercussions. Israel lost his job, removed by the governor after families of the victims and others accused him of incompetence and negligence in his department's response to the shooting.

A group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School responded by becoming nationally-known anti-gun violence activists. In part because of their voices, Florida passed laws preventing people under 21 from buying rifles and allowing police to seize weapons from those deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

Faced with charges that they missed warning signs the gunman was dangerous, the FBI and the Broward School District separately agreed to big monetary settlements with the families of those killed and injured.

But for the families, their main focus has remained on the shooter and seeing him face justice. And for many, that means the death penalty. "He deserves every chance he gave my daughter and the sixteen others," says Tony Montalto, the father of Gina Montalto, one of the 17 killed that day.

The sentencing phase

The trial that begins Monday is the sentencing phase, in which jurors will have two choices — they can give Cruz what the defense is asking for, life in prison, or what the prosecution says is the only acceptable sentence, death.

Last fall, the defense surprised many when Cruz decided to plead guilty. Appearing in court, he addressed the judge and the families of those he killed and injured. "I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day," he said. "And that if I would get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others." Families of the victims rejected the apology, calling it "irrelevant" and "ridiculous."

"The prosecutor is going to argue that this was a totally evil, unnecessary and horrible act," says Stephen Harper, a longtime public defender and expert on death penalty cases in Florida. He says that with so many people killed and injured, this is an extremely difficult case for the defense. "The defense is going to argue that their client was seriously mentally ill."

There have been many pretrial motions and hearings about the type of experts and evidence the defense will be allowed to present on what they contend is Cruz's impaired mental condition. Harper says that evidence may include electroencephalogram tests and other forms of brain scans. He says, "His mother was apparently an alcoholic and a drug abuser. And in utero, he would have been exposed to very serious things that could have affected clearly his mental capacity. So those things are very relevant."

The jury's sentencing decision must be unanimous. For the defense, that means finding one juror who may be swayed by evidence of mental illness.

Phil Reizenstein, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who's had many death penalty cases, says the heinous, premeditated nature of the mass shooting will be hard for the defense to overcome. The jury will see videos recorded by students of some of their classmates' last moments. And he says that they will hear eye-witness testimony of teachers and students who survived. "They're going to get on the stand and they're going to tell jurors what they felt," Reizenstein says, "their fear and their horror at seeing their friends murdered. That is going to be just bombshell testimony for the prosecution."

The jury will also hear statements from the families of those who were killed. Tony Montalto says he and his wife Jennifer will be there to talk about their daughter Gina, even though he acknowledges that it will be painful. "Every day is painful for us after our daughter was murdered," he says. "This cold, calculated and deliberate act deprived us of our beautiful and loving daughter."
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