It hasn’t been clear what track Nikolas Cruz’s attorneys might take to lay out his defense. At the outset of the trial, the lead defense attorney did not give an opening statement and chose instead to wait until after the prosecution rested to present the defense. Photo via Broward County Sheriff/UPI | License Photo
After hearing three weeks of arguments from prosecutors about how Nikolas Cruz killed more than a dozen people at his former high school in Parkland, Fla., four years ago, jurors on Monday will begin hearing the defense’s case.
Cruz’s attorneys will try to persuade jurors in the sentencing trial that the 23-year-old shooter who killed a number of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should be given life in prison instead of death row.
Cruz, who pleaded guilty last October to multiple counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder, faces death by lethal injection for the mass shooting attack at the South Florida school. Prosecutors rested their case earlier this month.
The jury must vote unanimously to condemn Cruz to death, meaning it would take just one juror to object to impose a life sentence. Also under Florida law, the judge could also intervene and order Cruz to spend life in prison without parole — even if all 12 jurors vote for the death penalty.
For weeks, prosecutors told jurors how Cruz showed up at his former high school armed with a rifle and killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018. The massacre is the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Only the attacks at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 were deadlier.
Jurors were also taken to MSD High School in Parkland to tour the scene of the attack.
It hasn’t been clear what track Cruz’s attorneys might take to lay out his defense. At the outset of the trial, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill did not give an opening statement and chose instead to wait until after the prosecution rested to present the defense.
Mourners gather for a candlelight vigil for the shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on February 15, 2018. File Photo by Gary Rothstein/UPI
Cruz’s attorneys also did not release a witness list in advance, but a motion in court last week revealed that Cruz’s half-sister Danielle Woodward would testify while awaiting her own trial in a Miami carjacking case.
Cruz’s brother Zachary is also expected to take the stand for the defense, along with his guardian Richard Moore after Broward County judge Elizabeth Scherer ruled last week that his testimony was admissible.
Scherer ruled last year that the defense could not tell jurors about mistakes made by law enforcement and school district officials as an argument against the death penalty — because, the judge determined, they were not the “sole proximate cause” of the shooting.
The judge also heard arguments from both sides last Wednesday about whether the results of a controversial quantitative electroencephalogram, or qEEG, brain scan would be admitted into evidence. Scherer has yet to rule in that matter.
The defense was planning to use the qEEG to show that Cruz suffered fetal alcohol syndrome after birth, which led to mental disabilities. An expert witness called by the prosecution, however, dismissed such brain scans as “garbage.”
Cruz’s attorneys are also expected to call experts who could give insight into his mental state and his troubled life, mitigating factors that jurors must weigh in their decision. However, if all jurors find there are more aggravating factors, like premeditation, it could clear a path to execution.
Cruz is not expected to testify in his defense.
“An artful defense attorney is going to try to humanize him as a pathetic, sympathetic individual who just didn’t have a fighting chance in life and therefore he doesn’t deserve to die,” Florida Rep. Michael Gottlieb, who is also a criminal defense attorney, said according to WPBF-TV.
“Now it’s up to the defense to build their case and show mitigating circumstances.”
Inmates on death row in Florida are executed by lethal injection. However, Florida law also says the inmate can choose to be electrocuted in the electric chair.
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