Prosecutors have called on a Florida jury to recommend the Parkland school shooter be put to death, saying in a closing argument Tuesday he meticulously planned the February 2018 massacre, and that the facts of the case outweigh anything in his background that defense attorneys claim warrant a life sentence.
“What he wanted to do, what his plan was and what he did, was to murder children at school and their caretakers,” lead prosecutor Michael Satz said of Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed. “That’s what he wanted to do.”
But Cruz “is a brain damaged, broken, mentally ill person, through no fault of his own,” defense attorney Melisa McNeill said in her own closing argument, pointing to the defense’s claim that Cruz’s mother used drugs and drank alcohol while his mother was pregnant with him, saying he was “poisoned” in her womb.
“And in a civilized humane society, do we kill brain damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “Do we? I hope not.”
With closing arguments, the monthslong sentencing phase of Cruz’s trial is nearing its end, marking prosecutors’ last chance to convince the jury to recommend a death sentence and defense attorneys’ last opportunity to lobby for life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors have argued Cruz’s decision to commit the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school was premeditated and calculated, while Cruz’s defense attorneys have offered evidence of a lifetime of struggles at home and in school.
Each side was allotted two and a half hours to make their closing arguments.
Jury deliberations are expected to begin Wednesday, during which time jurors will be sequestered, per Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.
If they choose to recommend a death sentence, the jurors must be unanimous, or Cruz will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury does recommend death, the final decision rests with Judge Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.
In his remarks, Satz outlined prosecutors’ reasoning, including the preparations Cruz made. For a “long time” prior to the shooting, Satz said, Cruz thought about carrying it out.
Revisiting ground covered in the trial, the prosecutor said Cruz researched mass shootings and their perpetrators, including those at a music festival in Las Vegas; at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; at Virginia Tech; and at Colorado’s Columbine High School.
Cruz modified his AR-15 to help improve his marksmanship; he accumulated ammunition and and magazines; and he searched online for information about how long it would take police to respond to a school shooting, Satz said.
Then, the day of, Satz said, Cruz hid his tactical vest in a backpack and took an Uber to the school, wearing a Marjory Stoneman Douglas JROTC polo shirt to blend in. Based on his planning, he told the Uber driver to drop him off at a specific pedestrian gate, knowing it would be open soon before school let out.
“All these details he thought of, and he did,” Satz said.
Satz also detailed a narrative of the shooting, which he called a “systematic massacre,” recounting how the shooter killed or wounded each of his victims, whose families and loved ones filled the courtroom gallery. Prosecutors also showed jurors a video of the shooting, which was not shown to the public.
Cruz, wearing a striped sweater and flanked by his public defenders, looked on expressionless, occasionally looking down at the table in front of him or talking to one of his attorneys.
“The appropriate sentence for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty,” Satz concluded.
In her own statement, McNeill stressed to jurors that defense attorneys were not disputing that Cruz deserves to be punished for the shooting.
“We are asking you to punish him and to punish him severely,” she said. “We are asking you to sentence him to prison for the rest of his life, where he will wait to die, either by natural causes or whatever else could possibly happen to him while he’s in prison.”
The 14 slain students were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, also were killed – each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.
Gunman was cold and calculated, prosecutors say
The lengthy trial – jury selection began six months ago, in early April – has seen prosecutors and defense attorneys present evidence of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances, reasons Cruz should or should not be put to death.
The state has pointed to seven aggravating factors, including that the killings were especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, as well as cold, calculated and premeditated, Satz said Tuesday. Other aggravating factors include the fact the defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many people and that he disrupted a lawful government function – in this case, the running of a school.
Together, these aggravating factors “outweigh any mitigation about anything about the defendant’s background or character,” Satz said.
Satz rejected the mitigating circumstances presented during trial by the defense, including that Cruz’s mother smoked or used drugs while pregnant with him. Those factors would not turn someone into a mass murderer, Satz argued, adding it was the jury’s job to weigh the credibility of the defense witnesses who testified to those claims.
Satz cast doubt on the defense’s other proposed mitigators. In response to a claim that Cruz has neurological or intellectual deficits, Satz pointed to the gunman’s ability to carefully research and prepare for the Parkland shooting.
In response to claims Cruz was bullied by his peers, Satz argued Cruz was an aggressor, pointing to testimony that he walked around in high school with a swastika drawn on his backpack, along with the N-word and other explicit language.
“Hate is not a mental disorder,” Satz said.
During trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing the gunman spent months searching online for information about mass shootings and left behind social media comments sharing his express desire to “kill people,” while Google searches illustrated how he sought information about mass shootings. On YouTube, Cruz left comments like “Im going to be a professional school shooter,” and promised to “go on a killing rampage.”
“What one writes,” Satz said, referencing Cruz’s online history Tuesday, “what one says, is a window to someone’s soul.”
Defense paints image of a ‘broken’ person
Public defenders assigned to represent Cruz have asked the jury to take into account his troubled history, from a dysfunctional family life to serious mental and developmental issues, contending he was born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
On Tuesday, McNeill reiterated the defense’s case, starting with one of the first witnesses called in August, Cruz’s older sister, Danielle Woodard. Woodard testified their mother, Brenda Woodard, used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him.
“Her brother, Nikolas Cruz never recovered from the drugs and the alcohol that Brenda put in her polluted womb,” McNeill said Tuesday.
Several neighbors who knew Cruz when he lived with his late adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, also testified about watching him grow up, McNeill reminded jurors Tuesday. They shared how they saw him behaving in ways they described as “strange” or “weird,” or saw him being bullied. One neighbor, McNeill said, had told jurors that “from the moment he set eyes on Nikolas, he could tell something was not right with him.”
McNeill also revisited Cruz’s academic struggles throughout his childhood, recounting the “many people” – including educators and school counselors or psychologists – who testified they had concerns about his bad behavior or poor performance in school.
Those struggles continued into adolescence, McNeill said: When he was 15 years old, Cruz’s skills in reading, writing and math were well below the levels they should have been. These academic struggles, along with his anxiety and depression, were indicators, McNeill said, of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Various counselors and psychiatrists also testified, McNeill reminded the jury, offering their observations from years of treating or interacting with Cruz. One, former Broward County school district counselor John Newnham, testified that while Lynda Cruz was a caring mother, after the death of her husband, she was “overwhelmed” and did not take advantage of the support available.
This was a factor in Cruz’s failure to receive the proper help, McNeill told jurors Tuesday.
“Everybody told you that Lynda never truly appreciated what was wrong with Nikolas … But the evidence has shown you that Lynda consistently minimized, enabled, ignored, excused, defended and ultimately lied to the very people that were trying to help Nikolas.”
“Sometimes the people who deserve the least amount of compassion and grace and remorse are the ones who should get it,” she said.
Defense called a fraction of expected witnesses
As part of the prosecution’s case, family members of the victims were given the opportunity this summer to take the stand and offer raw and emotional testimony about how Cruz’s actions had forever changed their lives. At one point, even members of Cruz’s defense team were brought to tears.
“I feel I can’t truly be happy if I smile,” Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, testified in August. “I know that behind that smile is the sharp realization that part of me will always be sad and miserable because Alex isn’t here.”
The defense’s case came to an unexpected end last month when – having called just 26 of 80 planned witnesses – public defenders assigned to represent Cruz abruptly rested, leading the judge to admonish the team for what she said was unprofessionalism, resulting in a courtroom squabble between her and the defense (the jury was not present).
Defense attorneys would later file a motion to disqualify the judge for her comments, arguing in part they suggested the judge was not impartial and Cruz’s right to a fair trial had been undermined. Prosecutors disagreed, writing “judicial comments, even of a critical or hostile nature, are not grounds for disqualification.”
Scherer ultimately denied the motion.
Prosecutors then presented their rebuttal, concluding last week following a three-day delay attributed to Hurricane Ian.
Their case included footage of Cruz telling clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Denney he chose to carry out the shooting on Valentine’s Day because he “felt like no one loved me, and I didn’t like Valentine’s Day and I wanted to ruin it for everyone.”
Denney, who spent more than 400 hours with the gunman, testified for the prosecution that he concluded Cruz has borderline personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder.
But Cruz did not meet the criteria for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as the defense has contended, Denney testified, accusing Cruz of “grossly exaggerating” his “psychiatric problems” in tests Denney administered.
When read the list of names of the 17 people killed and asked if fetal alcohol spectrum disorder explained their murders, Denney responded “no” each time.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of defense attorney Melisa McNeill and incorrectly reported Peter Wang's age at the time of his death. He was 15.
CNN’s Carlos Suarez, Sara Weisfeldt and Alta Spells contributed to this report.