Parkland, Florida school shooter faces death penalty

The avowed Parkland School shooter is expected to change his plea deal on Wednesday morning.

The decision came out of the blue. He was soon to begin his trial in a separate case for attacking a sergeant in Broward’s sheriff’s office in prison. Instead, last Friday he pleaded guilty to four criminal counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer, including attempted aggravated bodily harm with a deadly weapon. And his lawyers made an announcement:

Nikolas Cruz, now 23, will plead guilty to 17 counts of first degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first degree murder in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, his lawyers told the judge president Elizabeth Scherer.

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Cruz’s change of plea in the momentous case this week would spare loved ones and survivors the stress and trauma of a long public criminal trial.

Instead of going to trial, the case would enter the penalty phase, where a 12-person jury would decide whether to receive life without parole or the death penalty. Prosecutors are considering seeking the death penalty.

Under Florida law, the death penalty requires a jury to be unanimous in its decision.

Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed, said she had waited more than three years for the confessed shooter to appear in court.

“You know, I will never be able to heal, it is very painful for me and for my family. But we are ultimately looking for him to die of the death penalty, ”she told the South Florida Roundup on Friday.

Mitch and Annika Dworet, parents of Nicholas Dworet, 17, who was killed in the shooting and Alexander Dworet, who was shot but survived, believe the death penalty is appropriate justice.

“We would love to see the death penalty, absolutely,” said Mitch Dworet. “Without a doubt in our minds.”

Cruz’s defense team maintained that he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors rejected the deal. If he changes his plea, instead of going to trial, the case would enter the sentence phase, or the subsequent phase, of a trial with the death penalty.

Caitie Switalski Muñoz of WLRN spoke with Stephen Harper, professor emeritus and supervising lawyer of the Death Penalty Clinic at Florida International University, about what pleading guilty could mean, part of the history of the death penalty in Florida and a timetable for the continuation of his case.

The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

HARPER: If he pleads guilty or someone pleads guilty, then [the defense team] will decide whether they have gone to waive a jury or not. Almost not everyone will forgo a jury.

Then you have formed a jury that will only decide whether a person should be executed or whether they should spend the rest of their life in prison. Both parties will be spending a lot of time on their voir dire. Both the prosecutor and the defense [are] trying to find people who will work, who will rule their way. The fact that there are so many people killed in this case, the more people killed, the more publicity there is about it, the more difficult it is for the court or for both parties to find a fair juror. .

WLRN: When you think of a death penalty case, there are usually two phases, right? The first phase determines whether you find someone guilty or not. But in [this] case, there is going to be a possible advocacy shift. We are therefore considering entering directly into the sanctioning phase of a death penalty case. And for that sort of thing, what is the responsibility of a jury in this state of death penalty trial?

A person can waive the jury and let the judge make the final decision.

But if that person does not waive the jury in a sanction phase and it is only a sanction phase jury, then that jury would be chosen by the prosecutor and defense lawyers. They came and went. They would choose a jury only to hear the punishment phase as to whether that person should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

And very few people let the judge make the decision. Most people want the jury to make the decision because it only takes one juror to vote for life for the judge and court to come back under the law with a life sentence.

Is it true that potential jurors who are morally opposed to the death penalty are not chosen for these cases?

The law is basically that if you are adamantly against the death penalty, you cannot be on the jury. The test is whether you, whatever your personal beliefs, can weigh the evidence, follow the law, and make a decision.

If you think about a typical case of the death penalty and the sanctioning phase … When does that start in a typical case after jury selection? Is it six months? Is it weeks?

As my father, who was a lawyer, taught me the words, “it depends”. Each case is different. Sometimes they start almost immediately. Other times the judges will stop and give the defense a chance to get all their witnesses together and that can take months. So it really depends, but in a case where someone has waived the trial and now it’s only starting for a sentencing hearing, it would really depend on what the experts on either side are calling [and] their availability.

But I guess it would be pretty soon after the person had filed a plea.

CSM: Is there a world in which an accused can plead guilty, but with conditions, like someone who says, “Oh, I’ll plead guilty if we take away the death penalty? ”

SH: Negotiations between the prosecutor and the defense frequently focus on these kinds of issues. I have represented many people to whom the prosecutor has said, “Look, if he pleads guilty and takes a life sentence without the possibility of parole, we will give up asking for the death penalty.”

But the state has the ultimate decision-making power, and they can say it doesn’t really matter if they plead guilty or not guilty, we’re not going to give up on calling for the death penalty.

So, of course, first degree murder is an offense punishable by death. Is attempted first degree murder or attempted murder also an offense punishable by death?

No, the only offense for which anyone can get the death penalty is being convicted of first degree murder and one of what we call “legal aggravating factors” exists.

So, for example, if you kill someone and do it with [in] cold, calculated and premeditated or odious, atrocious and cruel circumstances… these are what we call aggravating factors. There are approximately [16] aggravating factors in Florida, and the state must prove any of these factors before someone can qualify for the death penalty.

What does an accused give up by pleading guilty and simply moving on to a sanctioning phase?

Well, he waives his right to have a trial and the trial that the onus is on the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the charge, and he waives that right.

There are some advantages to pleading guilty when you are guilty, at least because you admit your guilt. And it goes a bit far to convince some people, not all people, that you accept responsibility. And it can end with a lesser penalty.

WLRN’s Alyssa Ramos and Katie Lepri Cohen contributed to this report.

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