The penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz began on Monday, the deadliest US mass shooting to go before a jury, per the AP. Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of first-degree murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the deaths of 14 students and three staff members, and is contesting only his sentence. Jurors must decide whether he gets death or life without parole. The seven-man, five-woman panel, backed up by 10 alternates, will hear from lead prosecutor Mike Satz, who's expected to highlight Cruz's brutality as he stalked a three-story classroom building, firing his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms. Cruz sometimes walked back to wounded victims and killed them with a second volley of shots.
About 50 family members of the victims were in the courtroom, sitting together in a roped-off section. It wasn't clear if anyone, aside from his defense lawyers, was there to support Cruz. The trial for the former Stoneman Douglas student, expected to last about four months, was supposed to begin in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and legal fights delayed it. The Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, is the deadliest to reach trial in US history. Nine other gunmen who killed at least 17 people died during or immediately after their shootings, either by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 slaying of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.
It's the first death penalty trial for Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. When jurors eventually get the case this fall, they will vote 17 times, once for each of the victims, on whether to recommend capital punishment. Every vote must be unanimous; a nonunanimous vote for any one of the victims means Cruz's sentence for that person would be life in prison. The jurors are told that to vote for the death penalty, the aggravating circumstances the prosecution has presented for the victim in question must, in their judgment, "outweigh" mitigating factors presented by the defense. During jury selection, the panelists said under oath that they're capable of voting for either sentence.
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