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Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty trial begins

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Prosecutors opened Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty trial on Monday by delivering a chilling minute-by-minute timeline of how he killed 17 people in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago, setting the stage for an emotional proceeding expected to last for months and renew debate over what type of defendants should be executed.

The trial, being held at the Broward County Courthouse, comes after Cruz already pleaded guilty to carrying out one of the deadliest school shootings in US history when he was 19. The jury of seven men and five women is being asked to decide whether Cruz, now 23, should receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison for his crimes.

During his opening statement, Broward County prosecutor Michael J. Satz accused Cruz of conducting a “cold, calculating, manipulative and deadly” attack that involved gruesome and shocking levels of violence.

After explaining to jurors that much of Cruz’s rampage was caught on surveillance video, Satz noted that some of Cruz’s victims huddled together in hallways or classroom alcoves after being shot, but Cruz returned a few minutes later and fired even more rounds into their bodies. Cruz, who was armed with an assault-style rifle and wearing a tactical vest, fired 139 rounds during his rampage on Feb. 14, 2018.

Satz also told jurors that they will hear evidence about how Cruz, a former student at the school, had been planning his attack for months. Satz noted that police recovered a video from Cruz’s cellphone that he made three days before he had an Uber driver drop him off at school to carry out his attack in Parkland.

“Hello, my name is Nick. I am going to be the next school shooter of 2018,” he said on the video, according to Satz. “My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 and some Tracer rounds. It’s going to be a big event, and when you see me on the news, you will know who I am. You are all going to die.”

In all, Cruz killed 14 students, a teacher, the school’s athletic director and a football coach. One 15-year-old student had been shot 13 times, Satz said.

Another 17 people were injured in the shooting. Some relatives of the victims sobbed in the courtroom as prosecutors laid out their case. After the Parkland shooting, some of the parents of the victims joined with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students to launch a nationwide campaign for stricter gun laws.

“One week ago today I was at the @White House to celebrate [President Biden] signing gun safety legislation,” Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, in the shooting, wrote Monday morning on Twitter. “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.”

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The sentencing portion of Cruz’s trial comes as the United States reels from a spate of mass shootings that have renewed the debate around gun laws and sparked furor as people are shot dead at places meant to be safe — including schools. A Massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., left 19 students and two teachers dead in May. A Texas House Investigative report released Sunday pointed to numerous egregious errors by local, state and federal law enforcement in responding to the attack.

Cruz, wearing a gray and black sweater, had his face partially obscured by a black mask during Monday’s proceedings. As Satz outlined the prosecutors’ case, Cruz fidgeted with a notepad and scrawled notes to his attorneys.

In a surprise move, Cruz’s legal team waived its right to deliver an opening statement, saying it will start presenting its case to the jury at a later date.

But Cruz’s legal team is expected to ask jurors to spare his life because he had a turbulent family upbringing and had been receiving mental health counseling. Cruz’s mother died in 2017, and he had been living with a Foster family when he carried out his attack.

Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is presiding over the trial.

During her opening instructions to the jury, Scherer said that under Florida law jurors will first have to unanimously decide whether Cruz’s attack included one of seven possible “aggravating factors” for a capital crime. If they do, the jury will consider other possible “mitigating circumstances” that would cause them to instead spare Cruz from capital punishment.

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During his opening statement, Satz presented the aggravating factors that he said prosecutors will use to argue in favor of capital punishment. Under Florida law, the potential aggravating factors that jurors are weighing are: whether the defendant had previously been convicted of a violent felony; that the defendant knowingly created great risk to a large number of people; that a Murder was especially “heinous, atrocious or cruel”; that a Murder was premeditated; the crime was done to disrupt a government function; the victim was an appointed public official in performance of their duties; or that Murders were committed during the course of a burglary.

Satz said Cruz’s crime encompasses all seven of those factors.

Although Cruz did not previously have a violent criminal record, Satz said the Murder or attempted Murder of any of the 34 victims qualifies. The prosecutor also argued that Cruz committed his crime during a burglary because he was a former student who was not authorized to be on school grounds.

“You will see these aggravating factors far outweigh any mitigating circumstance,” Satz said. “Anything about the defendant’s background. Anything about his childhood. Anything about his schooling. Anything about his mental health. Anything about his therapy, and anything about his care.”

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