Closing arguments in the Parkland shooter's trial are underway
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Tomorrow jurors in Florida will begin deliberating whether the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should live or die for the crimes. Nikolas Cruz already pleaded guilty to the 2018 killings. For the past three months, the prosecution and defense have made their cases to jurors. That process ended today with closing arguments in the trial. The jury, considering Cruz's sentence, now has just two options - life in prison or the death penalty. NPR's Greg Allen joins us from the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Hey, Greg.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Before we get to the legal arguments and all that, I do want to focus on the families, many of whom I gather have showed up for a lot of this trial. How are they doing? How are they handling it?
ALLEN: Well, there clearly have been some tough days for family members here. You know, this - as this has gone forward, they've heard detailed descriptions of how each of the 14 students and three staff members died. Those were certainly tearful days. Some were there to see the surveillance video showing Cruz's rampage through the school. That was difficult. And some heard the testimony of medical examiners about horrific wounds inflicted by Cruz's AR-15-style rifle. But many of the families have been outspoken about their desire to see Cruz receive the death penalty. I think some see it as their duty on behalf of their loved ones to be here to see justice done.
KELLY: OK. What is the prosecution's case that this should be the death penalty that is handed to Cruz?
ALLEN: Well, prosecutor Mike Satz talked to the jury today about evidence that Cruz spent several months planning the shooting at the Parkland High School. He talked about searches Cruz conducted on his computer about previous school massacres. Cruz even did a search for, how long does it take cops to respond to a school shooting? Satz told a jury there's clear evidence that what happened in 2018 was, in his words, quote, "cold, calculated and premeditated."
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MIKE SATZ: This plan was goal-directed. It was calculated. It was purposeful. And it was a systematic massacre.
KELLY: Greg, are there instructions to the jury that they have to take into account in deciding what to to do here, what penalty to apply?
ALLEN: Yes. The judge will be giving the jury instructions tomorrow, but they've already discussed this idea about aggravating and mitigating factors. Under Florida law, the jury has to decide whether aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors and if they're going to give the death penalty. And if the murders are cold, calculated, premeditated, as we just discussed, that's one aggravating factor. Prosecutors want jurors to consider several others - the fact that multiple murders were carried out, the fact that they were done at a school and that they were done in a way that was especially, quote, "heinous, atrocious or cruel." And at that point, the jury heard horrific testimony from survivors about the terror they experienced that day of the shooting. Jurors also watched surveillance videos showing Cruz returning to victims he wounded and shooting them again, in many cases killing them.
KELLY: So in the face of that, what arguments are Cruz's attorneys making?
ALLEN: Well, this is a very difficult case, as you certainly understand, because the horrific nature of the murders and the huge impact it's had here in south Florida. Cruz's defense attorneys have tried to turn the page for the murders, saying he pled guilty to those murders. He's taking his - he's accepting his guilt for that. They've instead tried to focus this on Cruz's troubled personal history. And that's a history that started when his birth mother, Brenda Woodard, abused alcohol and cocaine while she was pregnant with him. Cruz's defense lawyers have a lot of medical experts to make the case that he suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Here's his attorney, Melisa McNeill.
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MELISA MCNEILL: You now know that Nikolas is a brain-damaged, broken, mentally ill person through no fault of his own. He was literally poisoned in Brenda's womb.
ALLEN: These are all consequences of Cruz's mental impairment, she says, of FASD - his problems in school and elsewhere. And they say that's reason to give him not death but life in prison without possibility of parole.
KELLY: All right. NPR's Greg Allen reporting for us from the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Thank you, Greg.
ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.