[Breaking news update, published at 11:08 a.m. ET]
The jury in the sentencing trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz recommended a life sentence on the initial counts read in court Thursday, but with more counts to be addressed, it’s still possible he could receive the death penalty.
Jurors must be unanimous to recommend a death sentence under Florida law, or Cruz will receive a sentence of life in prison. If they recommend death on at least one count, the ultimate decision on Cruz’s sentence would go to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who could choose to either follow the jury’s guidance or sentence the gunman, now 24, to life in prison.
[Original story, published at 10:03 a.m. ET]
The jury in the death penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz reached a decision on whether to sentence the Parkland school shooter to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole on Thursday morning, soon after they began their second day of deliberations.
The jury’s recommendation is expected to be read in court at 10:30 a.m. ET.
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the February 2018 shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed, and 17 others were injured.
Jurors must be unanimous to recommend a death sentence under Florida law, or Cruz will receive a sentence of life in prison. If they recommend death, the ultimate decision on Cruz’s sentence would go to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who could choose to either follow the jury’s guidance or sentence the gunman, now 24, to life in prison.
Because Cruz pleaded guilty last year in the 2018 massacre – the deadliest mass shooting at a US high school – his trial proceeded directly to the sentencing phase. The sentencing recommendation comes after a monthslong sentencing trial, about six months after jury selection began.
News that jurors had reached a decision on their recommendation came soon after Scherer announced the weapon Cruz used would be sent to jurors for them to examine.
A day earlier, Scherer said she couldn’t allow it because of “security reasons.” When the panel asked to see the weapon shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Scherer indicated the Broward County Sheriff’s Department did not want to take the unloaded, inoperable firearm back to the jury room at that time.
The issue was rectified by Thursday morning, however, with Scherer saying the jury would view the weapon without its firing pin. The gun would otherwise appear as it did when Cruz used it, Scherer said. Neither side objected.
To decide on a recommended sentence, jurors must weigh the aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances – reasons why Cruz should or should not be put to death – presented by the prosecution and defense during trial.
The state argued Cruz’s decision to carry out the shooting was not only especially heinous or cruel, but premeditated and calculated and not, as the defense contends, related to any neurological or intellectual deficits. To illustrate their point, prosecutors detailed Cruz’s thorough planning for the shooting, as well as comments he made online expressing his desire to commit a mass killing.
In their case, the shooter’s defense attorneys said Cruz had neurodevelopmental disorders stemming from prenatal alcohol exposure, and presented evidence and witnesses claiming his birth mother had used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him. Cruz’s adoptive mother was not open about this fact with medical and mental health professionals or educators, preventing him from receiving the appropriate interventions, the defense claimed.
Jurors need to unanimously agree on death penalty
The jury received instructions from Scherer in court Wednesday morning. Jurors were sequestered during deliberations.
If the jurors do not unanimously recommend Cruz get a death sentence, he will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury does recommend death, the final decision rests with Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.
To recommend death, all 12 jurors must agree on several things: First, that the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt there was at least one aggravating factor, and that the factor is sufficient to warrant a possible death sentence.
The jurors would then need to unanimously agree that the aggravators outweigh the mitigating circumstances.
Finally, if the jury agrees to those things, they still would need to unanimously find that Cruz should be put to death.
Jurors will consider these questions for each of the 17 murder counts. Cruz would serve life in prison if the jury cannot unanimously agree on death for any of the counts.
Jurors reheard testimony of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder expert
The first day of deliberations saw jurors asking for a readback of at least some testimony from an expert who testified across multiple days.
When Judge Scherer agreed to the readback, jurors were called back into the courtroom. A court reporter then read the cross examination of Dr. Paul Connor, an expert on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), who testified for the defense that Cruz has the disorder, along with deficits in IQ, motor skills, executive functioning and memory – elements that would support the defense’s mitigators and a life sentence.
During the cross examination in September, prosecutors pressed Connor on his testing of Cruz and questioned his assessment of Cruz’s capabilities, particularly his visual-spatial skills. Lead prosecutor Michael Satz pointed to a sharpshooter badge Cruz earned while on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas JROTC team, which required him to fire a pellet and hit increasingly smaller targets from 10 meters away.
“Were you aware,” Satz asked Conner in September, “that the defendant in this case won a sharpshooter badge?”
“No,” Connor responded.
The jury also initially asked to rehear the testimony of Dr. Robert Denney, a clinical neuropsychologist who testified during the state’s rebuttal that Cruz does not meet the criteria for FASD, but does have anti-social personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.
But after rehearing Connor’s cross examination, the jury decided it no longer needed to rehear Denney’s testimony.
The jurors were once again excused to deliberate in private.
In closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors argued Cruz’s decision to commit the shooting was deliberate and carefully planned, while Cruz’s defense attorneys offered evidence of a lifetime of struggles at home and in school.
“What he wanted to do, what his plan was and what he did, was to murder children at school and their caretakers,” Satz said Tuesday. “The appropriate sentence for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty,” he concluded.
However, defense attorney Melisa McNeill said Cruz “is a brain damaged, broken, mentally ill person, through no fault of his own.” She pointed to the defense’s claim that Cruz’s mother used drugs and drank alcohol while his mother was pregnant with him, saying he was “poisoned” in her womb.
“And in a civilized humane society, do we kill brain damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “Do we? I hope not.”
CNN’s Denise Royal, Carlos Suarez and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.