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The trial for the Parkland high school shooting begins

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, a jury in Florida has begun to decide whether to recommend the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz. He's the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Cruz has already pleaded guilty to those murders, as well as 17 counts of attempted murder for the students and adults he wounded. The sentencing phase of the trial got underway today. Jurors will have just two options - give Cruz life in prison without parole or death.

NPR's Greg Allen joins us from the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. And we will warn you that we're going to hear some disturbing details about the shooting. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Like the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, the shooting four years ago in Parkland was done by a former student who rampaged through the school with a semiautomatic rifle. Tell us about what's going into this sentencing phase of the hearing today.

ALLEN: Right. It sounds too familiar. Nikolas Cruz was a troubled person with a long history of behavioral issues who'd been expelled from the high school in Parkland. He went to the school in February of 2018, taking an Uber and carrying in a bag an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle and several magazines, some carrying as many as 40 rounds. After shooting more than 30 people, killing 17 of them, he dropped his rifle and escaped by blending in with the crowd of students who were leaving the school. He was arrested by police shortly afterwards a few miles away.

But the facts of the case have never really been in dispute since then. Witnesses identified him. There's surveillance video. He recorded video of himself before the shooting talking about it. And that video is key. Prosecutor Mike Satz says it shows that the shootings were planned and premeditated. And premeditation is one of the aggravating factors a jury will have to weigh in considering whether to recommend the death penalty or not. And to help make that point in his opening statement today, Satz read a transcript of that video that was recorded by Cruz just three days before the murders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE SATZ: And this is what the defendant said.

(Reading) Hello. My name is Nik. I'm going to be the next school shooter of 2018.

ALLEN: You know, the FBI actually received a tip about Cruz before the shooting, but it failed to act. The government eventually agreed to more than a $100-million settlement with the families because of that.

SHAPIRO: What are some of the other aggravating circumstances the jury is going to be asked to consider?

ALLEN: Well, Mike Satz laid out seven aggravating factors, any one of which could be enough to result in the death penalty. Along with the premeditated nature, the fact that it was a mass killing, that was done in a school and that public officials - teachers - were killed can all be considered aggravating factors. Another is that the murders can be seen as heinous, atrocious or cruel. And by that it's - it can be a lot of different things. But in Parkland, many of the victims were shot numerous times, and sometimes Cruz returned to people he'd shot and shot them again. One victim, 14-year-old Peter Wang, was shot 13 times. Satz walked through each murder with the jury today, describing for them Cruz's path through the school building, and he told the jury they'll see it for themselves from the building's surveillance cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SATZ: You will see the defendant on the first floor fire a rifle, shoot and kill nine students, the athletic director and a coach.

ALLEN: Cruz later killed eight more people on the building's third floor, and he wounded many others.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure it's difficult for the families to relive this, to see the shooter there in person. Are many of them attending?

ALLEN: Yes, there are many family members here today. They've been waiting four years - more than four years for this day. One family member I spoke to, Tony Montalto, the father of Gina Montalto, one of those who were killed, says what's really hard is living each day without his daughter. Many family members are pushing for the death penalty, and they say they plan to be here to see it recommended by the jury.

Some of the most disturbing evidences today were videos recorded by students on the day of the shooting. Danielle Gilbert was in her psychology class that day when Cruz began firing through the window of the locked door of her classroom. She said there was more than 30 students in the class. They ran to hide behind their teacher's desk. But in her words, she said, we were sitting ducks. And she testified today that she doesn't know why, but she started recording videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS SCREAMING)

ALLEN: That's a little bit of one of the videos that was played today. Four people were shot in Gilbert's classroom, including one, Carmen Schentrup, who died. The videos also had gunshots on them, and they were all very difficult for everyone in the courtroom to hear.

SHAPIRO: Have defense attorneys spoken yet? Do you know how they're planning to counter what appears to be a strong case by prosecutors?

ALLEN: Well, the defense has actually delayed making its opening statement until after the state concludes making its case in the coming weeks. But we know they're going to be talking about Cruz's history of behavioral and mental health problems and hoping that that will be considered a mitigating factor by the jury and maybe help them escape the death penalty.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Allen in Fort Lauderdale. Thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.