(PARKLAND, Fla.) — The fate of confessed Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz will soon be in the hands of the jurors who will determine if Cruz will be sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison for carrying out the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre.
Closing arguments in the penalty phase trial were held Tuesday, more than four years after Cruz, then 19, gunned down 14 students and three staff members at his former Florida high school. Cruz pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
As parents of the slain children looked on, prosecutor Michael Satz said Tuesday that the testimony and evidence presented at the trial revealed the “unspeakable, horrific brutality and the unrelentless cruelty” carried out on Feb. 14, 2018.
“It’s been said that what one writes, and what one says, is a window to someone’s soul,” Satz said in his closing argument. “Some of the remarks the defendant wrote on his YouTube were: ‘No mercy, no questions, double tap. I’m going to…murder children…I’d love to see the families suffer.'”
“He’s thinking ahead,” Satz said, by “not only looking to inflict pain” on the victim, but also “anticipating how that pain, fear and death…is gonna affect the families.”
Cruz researched previous mass shootings, Satz said, and planned a “systematic massacre.”
Satz recounted how Cruz’s phone revealed a video filmed three days before the carnage, in which Cruz said: “I’m going to be the next school shooter…my goal is to kill at least 20 people.”
“He wanted to be known,” Satz said.
Satz highlighted how two of the four gunshot wounds to 14-year-old victim Gina Montalto were contact wounds, meaning the end of Cruz’s AR-15-style rifle “was right up against her chest and right up on her abdomen.”
Satz told the jury that one of Cruz’s YouTube comments was “I don’t mind shooting a girl in the chest,” adding, “that’s exactly what he did to Gina Montalto.”
Cruz fired 70 shots on Building 12’s first floor, Satz said, and the barrage of bullets prompted students and teachers on the second floor to take cover.
Cruz fired just six shots on the second floor, because he couldn’t find any targets, Satz said.
Cruz fired 61 rounds on the third floor, Satz said, including into the back of geography teacher Scott Beigel. The 35-year-old died trying to shepherd students to safety into his classroom.
Also among those killed on the third floor was 15-year-old Peter Wang, who was shot a total of 12 times, Satz said. While Wang was lying on the ground injured, Cruz shot him in the head four times, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Melisa McNeill stressed in her closing argument that Cruz already pled guilty. McNeill admitted Cruz was responsible and planned the massacre.
Cruz “knew the difference between right and wrong that day — and he chose wrong,” she said.
But the defense argued Cruz suffered lifelong developmental delays that traced back to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
Cruz’s birth mother was a drug and alcohol addict who drank and used drugs up until six weeks before Cruz was born, McNeill said in her opening argument. Cruz was “poisoned in the womb” and his “brain was irretrievably broken,” she said.
The Broward County School Board classified Cruz as “developmentally delayed in all areas” and said he had “a language impairment,” McNeill noted. The district classified him as an “ESE” student, or a special needs child, she said.
Satz countered in his closing argument, saying that doctor testimony proved Cruz doesn’t have a mental disease, but an antisocial personality. Cruz’s adoptive mother took him to multiple doctors and therapists, Satz said, adding that Cruz “had the ability to behave — he just didn’t.”
McNeill argued Tuesday that prosecutors tried to “dehumanize” Cruz.
“What they have done is slapped on a label that says he only has a personality disorder… but that doesn’t describe all of Nikolas’ behavior,” she said. “It’s easier to call someone antisocial…than to accept what Nikolas Cruz really is: a broken, brain-damaged, mentally ill young man. Do we kill brain-damaged, mentally ill, broken people?”
“He deserves to be punished,” McNeill said, adding, “Sentencing Nikolas to death will change absolutely nothing. It will not bring back those 17 innocent victims that he viciously murdered.”
The jury’s decision must be unanimous for the death penalty.
“The individual, moral decision that you will be making about whether Nikolas should live or die is not a decision that should be made in an emotional state,” she told the jurors. “Please don’t ever feel pressured to reach a verdict — take your time…You must carefully consider and weigh the evidence, realizing…that you literally have another human being’s life at stake.”
Fred Guttenberg, father of 14-year-old victim Jaime Guttenberg, tweeted Tuesday morning that he hopes the trial “will conclude this week.”
“This trial has been harder on us than you could imagine, and we are ready to have this in our rear view,” he said.
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