After Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of first-degree murder and other counts, prosecutors no longer had to prove at trial that he committed the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. His guilt was colonized.
What the plea didn’t fix was his sentence. In Florida, first-degree murder is a capital crime, punishable by death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. And state law requires a jury to determine what it should be.
If the accused had been convicted at trial, the same jury that returned the verdict would have been retained for a separate sentencing proceeding. But when a defendant pleads guilty before trial to a capital crime, as Mr. Cruz did, the court must appoint a jury for sentencing only, unless the defendant waives the right to be decided by a jury.
what the state does
The job of the prosecution is now to convince the jury that there are aggravating circumstances in the case that would justify the death penalty. Among the possible aggravating factors listed in the law are:
That the murders were “particularly heinous, atrocious or cruel”;
That the accused “knowingly created a great risk of death for many people”;
That the accused killed “in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification”.
Prosecutors are expected to present detailed details of the 17 high school murders and 17 attempted murders, including hundreds of gruesome photographs and videos. The jury can also visit the school building where the filming took place.
“They’re going to try to make those jurors relive what happened to the victims,” said David S. Weinstein, a former prosecutor turned defense attorney. “It’s going to be an emotional roller coaster.”
What does the defense do
The defense will try to convince the jury that there are mitigating circumstances that would call for leniency. Under the law, those circumstances could include the defendant “being under the influence of an extreme mental or emotional disorder” or having an impaired ability to understand whether his actions were criminal, among other factors.
Defense attorneys intend to demonstrate that Mr. Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the shooting, struggled with a difficult upbringing and mental health issues and had tried to seek treatment. They asked permission to show jurors a map of his brain, but the judge has yet to decide whether to allow it.
The task of the jury
After hearing the evidence, the jury must first decide whether the state has proven each of the alleged aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. For the accused to be liable to the death penalty, the jury must unanimously find that at least one of the aggravating factors must be proven.
Next, the jury will consider whether the proven aggravating circumstances are sufficient to warrant a death sentence and outweigh the mitigating factors found, and if so, whether to recommend a death sentence to the court. To do this, the jury must again be unanimous; otherwise, the sentencing recommendation should be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The court cannot impose a death sentence if the jury recommended life in prison, but it can overrule a jury’s death recommendation and impose a life sentence instead.
A strange affair
The need for a special sentencing jury is one of the many reasons why the Parkland case is extremely unusual. It is rare that someone as young as Mr. Cruz (he is now 23) faces the death penalty, and even rarer that someone who committed such a deadly shooting is still alive afterwards. to face justice.
“In a sense, we’re in completely uncharted waters,” said Robert M. Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, who follows the massacres. “You never get that kind of trial because the shooter is still dead.”
Patricia Mazzei contributed report.