Editor’s Note: Joey Jackson is a criminal defense attorney and a legal analyst for CNN and HLN. The views expressed here are solely his.
Will justice for the Parkland, Florida, shooter mean he will face the death penalty?
Broward County Prosecutor Michael Satz said in a statement that he will make that announcement at “the appropriate time.” Doing so will of course involve discussions with law enforcement and the victims’ families; prosecutors must evaluate the evidence, and do what they assess to be in the community’s interest.
That said, it is all but a foregone conclusion that prosecutors will pursue the death penalty here. And they should. Three concrete factors point in that direction.
First, Satz telegraphed his inclination when he noted that “[t]his certainly is the type of case the death penalty was designed for.”
Second, in light of the larger issues surrounding the case, including the suffering of so many victims and their families, the need to protect children who are simply attending school from gun violence, the altered psyche of this community and the country, the prosecutor may well use this as an opportunity to take a definitive stand. The youth themselves are lending their voice to the issue of getting gun violence under control, petitioning the legislature for long term changes that will protect them. Accordingly, it seems likely that the prosecutor here will want to send a powerful and meaningful message. Who can blame him?
Finally, when looking at the tenets of the justice system as they relate to punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation, a death penalty prosecution seems to be the only reasonable alternative.
Indeed, as Satz noted, this does appear to be the very case that the death penalty was designed for.
Why? Florida’s law allows for capital punishment under circumstances where the defendant’s conduct consists of “aggravating factors,” each of which points to depraved behavior. Prosecutors can identify at least three such factors here, where Cruz: 1) created a grave risk of death to many people; 2) acted in a way that was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel; and 3) committed the act in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner.
Any one of these factors by itself can serve as a basis for the death penalty if a unanimous 12-member jury finds “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they were met. Given the carnage here and the callous manner in which the shooter went about causing it, the prosecution would not have much difficulty meeting its burden.
The jury must then consider whether there is any “mitigating factor” that would outweigh the “aggravating” ones, such as: 1) the defendant’s lack of a significant criminal history; 2) whether he was under extreme mental or emotional disturbance: 3) whether he acted out of extreme duress; 4) whether he appreciated the criminality of his conduct or whether he lacked the ability to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law; 5) the defendant’s youth; and 6) any other relevant factors in his life.
To be sure, Cruz’s defense team are likely to highlight all of these mitigating factors before a jury that is deciding whether to put him to death.
And the defense will most certainly point to these specific factors already being reported in the press: his mental health history; chronic depression; autism; attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder; his unstable family life; and other aspects of his background, troubles and hardships.
Reasonable minds may differ as to whether these factors will outweigh the atrocious and cruel nature of his conduct. And if any single juror of the 12 disagrees that death is the appropriate penalty, Cruz would get life without parole. In my view, it’s a hard sell that his actions merit any mercy at all.
As a signal of the concern about the prospects for a death penalty case, Cruz’s lawyers already have offered that he would plead guilty to avoid a death sentence. While this would forestall a trial, it’s not likely that the prosecutor will accept this offer.
Why? There are other reasons why the prosecutor would be inclined to move forward with a capital case. This Parkland tragedy informs and reflects a much broader narrative. Although it happened in Florida, the outrage over the shooter’s conduct is felt throughout the country; a shocked, weary, and beleaguered nation is watching. The public must demand accountability.
To be clear, Satz’s jurisdiction is limited to Broward County, but the message he would be sending in pursuing a death penalty prosecution would be felt in every other county across the nation.
Americans have been down this road before – Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Santa Monica and San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas.
After Parkland, there is a palpable feeling that “enough is enough.”
With their vocal and emotional appearances on TV newscasts, their outrage and pleas for action across social media, the youth of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have reinvigorated and revitalized the debate over gun violence and regrettably easy access to these dangerous weapons, particularly AR-15 style guns.
We are in a defining moment in history where politicians will have to examine every aspect of the gun issue and take legislative steps to address these episodes of mass violence. A death penalty prosecution will be part of this much broader narrative. It will signal official resolve, setting the tone and reminding the catalysts and perpetrators of this violence of the consequences of their behavior.
There is no question that there is a need for decisive and significant punishment in this case, particularly given the gravity of the shooter’s conduct. Many may argue that life in prison without parole is an even worse punishment for a 19-year-old. The hardships he would endure in prison, and the length of time he would have to contemplate his actions make this a pretty convincing argument. But the symbolic nature of the death penalty and the underlying message it sends will make it a much more attractive option to prosecutors. As well is should be.
As for deterrence, the death penalty speaks loudly and clearly.
And what about rehabilitation? Does anyone believe that Cruz can be reintegrated into society as a productive member? The very act that he engaged in makes him ineligible to serve any role in society.
So while the prosecutor will take his time to make this decision, in my view, it is a foregone conclusion that the decision he reaches will involve capital punishment. And in this case, that’s what justice demands.