Parkland school killer Nikolas Cruz hides face as horrific videos of massacre played at death penalty hearing

Unanimous jury decision needed for death sentence

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Monday 18 July 2022 23:53 BST
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Louise Thomas

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When Nikolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on 14 February, 2018, armed with a high-powered assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition that he would use to commit one of the worst mass shootings in US history, he warned a passing student to leave. “Something bad is about to happen,” he told them.

Memories of that horrific day came flooding back on Monday as a Florida court considered whether to give Cruz, now 23, the death penalty, for killing 17 students and teachers and wounding 17 others.

Prosecutors played cellphone video of the shooting, where shots could be heard ringing out and a voice is captured saying, “Someone help me.”

Danielle Gilbert, a student at the time, captured the videos, and testified that she and her fellow students felt like “sitting ducks.” She openly wept on the stand as the clip was played.

In the gallery, many of the victims’ family members looked on and could be seen consoling one another, while some rushed out of the courtroom entirely rather than relive that day.

Cruz, who has pleaded guilty to 17 murder charges and just as many attempted murder charges, buried his head in his hands and appeared to cover his ears as another graphic video was played, where screams and gunshots could be heard.

Because the 23-year-old has already pleaded guilty, the 12-person Florida jury will instead be tasked with deciding on his punishment: either a death sentence, or a life sentence without parole.

The jury of seven men and five women, selected from a pool of 1,800 candidates, will need to be in unanimous agreement to levy an execution sentence.

Prosecutors argued on Monday that Cruz should be punished as strictly as possible for what they called a "planned, systematic ... mass murder."

They quoted from a video Cruz made before the shooting, where he said, ‘My name is Nik. I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 and some tracer rounds. It’s gonna be a big event and when you see me on the news you’ll know who I am. You’re all gonna die. ... I can’t wait.’"

Prosecutor Michael Satz said the severity of the killings, the worst US mass shooting ever to be prosecuted in court “far outweigh any mitigating circumstances” Cruz had in his background.

The defence will likely argue Cruz had severe developmental, mental health, and behavioural issues, which could push the court towards a life sentence.

Cruz’s public defenders have opted to give their opening statements at a later date.

The shooter, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, has previously apologised in court last year.

"I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day,” he said.

Cruz has argued the families of those killed should decide his punishment.

Those connected to the shooting tragedy have voiced a variety of opinions on what should happen next.

Cameron Kasky, a Parkland student who went on to become a gun-reform activist, said a death sentence would be “barbaric.”

The punishment, Mr Kasky said in a Sunday tweet, "will not bring any of the victims back" and will "create a false sense of Justice, which will only come when the gun manufacturers and the politicians who support them are held accountable.”

Others, like Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Joaquin was killed, has argued execution is the best option.

"I think he should die and I think that is not enough. ... Not even the death penalty is enough,” he told WPLG.

Others have emphasised the need for more comprehensive gun control laws.

"One week ago today I was at the White House to celebrate [the president[ signing gun safety legislation,” wrote Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed, in a tweet on Monday. “Today, I am at the Courthouse for the start of the penalty phase of the criminal trial of the person who murdered my daughter with an AR 15. This is the reality of gun violence."

Historically, mass shooters have not tended to receive the death penalty.

Most of those who kill high numbers of people in public have either been shot by police or died by suicide.

Of those who went to trial, 20 of the 178 mass shooters who killed four or more people since the 1960s have been given the death penalty, while 32 have been jailed, according to research from the federally funded Violence Project.

Dylan Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine Black worshippers at a church in South Carolina in 2015, was sentenced to death, but his attorneys have appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing the killer opted to represent himself and wrongly kept evidence that he was mentally ill out of court.

The families who have lost loved ones to mass shootings and terrorist attacks have complicated feelings about the death penalty, as The Independent reported last year.

Reverend Sharon Risher lost her mother, cousins, and many dear friends in the South Carolina church shooting.

“In my heart, as my mother’s child, I wanted him to be dead like her,” she told The Independent. “Going back to my Christian faith, I knew that I didn’t want that. I realised that even though he had done this horrific thing, my faith tells me that God is a God of restoration and redemption.”

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