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Jurors in Florida will consider the death penalty for the Parkland school shooter

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A jury in Florida is expected to begin deliberations on whether the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gets the death sentence. Nikolas Cruz has pleaded guilty to the murders.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. Defense attorneys argued that Cruz, though, should be spared and given life in prison without the possibility of parole instead because of his troubled history and his mental health.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Greg Allen has been following the trial. He joins us now from Miami. And some of what you'll hear in his report might be disturbing. Greg, how will the jury decide whether Cruz deserves the death penalty?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, under Florida law, jurors can hand down a sentence of death if they find that aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors. And prosecutors detailed several aggravating factors they think that apply here. Prosecutor Mike Satz says videos Cruz recorded on a cell phone, social media posts and even internet searches showed that he planned this attack on the school months in advance.

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MIKE SATZ: And what he did was to murder children at school and their caretakers. That's what he wanted to do. That's what he planned to do. That's what he wanted to do. And that's what he did.

ALLEN: And there are other aggravating factors - the fact that multiple murders were carried out, that they were done at a school, and that they were done in a way that was especially, quote, "heinous, atrocious or cruel." On that point, the jury heard disturbing testimony from survivors about the terror they experienced that day. Jurors also watched surveillance videos showing Cruz returning to victims he wounded and shooting them again, killing them.

MARTINEZ: Now, as we mentioned, Cruz's guilt has already been established. He pleaded guilty. What's the case his defense has made for giving him a life sentence?

ALLEN: Well, I've spoken to experienced lawyers who say this is one of the most difficult death penalty cases for the defense they've ever seen in Florida. Yesterday, the jury once again viewed a 14-minute surveillance video from the school that recorded the entire attack. It's not been made public - very disturbing - but it depicts Cruz methodically shooting into classrooms and down hallways and then reloading his AR-15-style rifle several times with new magazines. Several weeks ago, the jury visited the building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where the shootings occurred, where they saw bloodstains, bullet holes and other evidence of the attack. Defense lawyer Melissa McNeill has tried to move past the shooting, saying by pleading guilty to the murders, Cruz is accepting responsibility. She's tried instead to focus on Cruz's troubled history that began when before he was born, when his mother abused drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant with him.

MARTINEZ: But how would that help him avoid the death penalty?

ALLEN: Well, McNeill spent a lot of time yesterday in her closing argument recounting all the problems Cruz had in school and in his interactions with others. She talked about testimony from experts who said Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She said he never received a proper diagnosis or treatment because everyone from his adoptive mother to school officials dropped the ball. And if at least one juror opts for life, the death penalty then is off the table. McNeill acknowledged, though, to jurors, that vote would require courage.

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MELISSA MCNEILL: Your individual moral decision must not be based upon what you think that this community wants or what you think anybody else wants. This is your individual moral decision.

ALLEN: Many of the family members of those who've died have been outspoken about their desire to see Cruz receive the death penalty. Throughout the trial, many of them have been in the courtroom. There's been some difficult days. And I'm sure they will be there when the jury finally comes in with the verdict, whenever that is.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks.

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

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.