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Parkland school shooter called "calculated, manipulative and deadly" as death penalty phase of trial begins

Parkland school shooting death penalty trial
What to expect from the Parkland, Florida, school shooting death penalty trial 04:06

The gunman who fatally shot 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, more than four years ago was called "manipulative and deadly" in court on Monday morning as the final phase of his sentencing trial began.

Nikolas Cruz, 23, appeared before a jury that will determine whether he is sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. While delivering his opening statement, lead prosecutor Mike Satz referenced three videos recorded by the defendant on his cellphone in the days leading up to the February 2018 massacre.

Prosecutors initially released the videos several months after the shooting. In them, the gunman articulated his plans to be that year's "next school shooter" and kill "at least 20 people."

"This is what the defendant said. 'Hello, 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 going to be a big event. And when you see me on the news, you'll know who I am. You're all going to die. Ah yeah, I can't wait. Ah yeah, I can't wait,'" Satz recalled in the opening statement. He then described the shooter as "cold, calculated, manipulative and deadly."

Assistant State Attorney Mike Satz delivers his opening statement in the penalty phase of the trial of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 18, 2022.
Assistant State Attorney Mike Satz delivers his opening statement in the penalty phase of the trial of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 18, 2022. Amy Beth Bennett/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The gunman pleaded guilty last October to all charges brought against him, including 17 counts of premeditated first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder. He is now contesting his sentence.

Satz was expected to highlight the defendant's brutality during the penalty trial. As previously reported, he stalked a three-story classroom building to carry out the Parkland shooting and fired his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms. He sometimes walked back to wounded victims and killed them with a second volley of shots.

Parkland School Shooter Nikolas Cruz Appears In Court For Plea Hearing
Fred Guttenberg wipes his eyes as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz pleads guilty at the Broward County Courthouse on October 20, 2021 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Cruz pleaded guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida. Guttenbergs daughter, Jaime Guttenberg, 14, and Hoyers son, Luke Hoyer, 15, were both killed in the massacre. Amy Beth Bennett / Getty Images

About 50 family members of the victims were in the courtroom, some couples holding hands. Some parents teared up as Satz described the deaths of their children. One mother, crying, got up and left.

It wasn't clear if anyone was there to support the defendant, aside from his defense lawyers, one of whom stopped scribbling and held his head in one hand as Satz described how the gunman pulled out a vest loaded with extra ammunition and moved through the school, killing and wounding people along his way.

The defendant sat at the defense table between his attorneys. He mostly looked down at a pad of paper with a pencil in his hand, but he did not appear to write. He would sometimes look up to stare at Satz or the jury, peer at the audience or whisper to his lawyers.

Among the first witnesses called was Danielle Gilbert, a junior who was in psychology class when the shooting began. The teacher told students to get behind her desk.

"We were sitting like sitting ducks. We had no way to protect ourselves," said Gilbert, who is now a student at the University of Central Florida. Four people were shot in that room, she said, including one who died.

Cellphone video clips Gilbert took from inside the classroom were shown to the jury, and the audio included multiple gunshots as a fire alarm sounded. A wounded boy could be heard crying, "Someone help me."

As Gilbert left, she broke down in sobs. Her father put his arm around her and led her from the courtroom.

Prosecutors also presented cellphone video from another student that showed classmates crouching behind chairs as Cruz fired through the classroom door window, the bangs reverberating over screams. One woman in the back of the courtroom yelled for prosecutors to turn it off before bailiffs asked her to be quiet.

A seven-man, five-woman panel, backed up by 10 alternates, is considering the fate of the former Stoneman Douglas student. Expected to last about four months, the trial was supposed to begin in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and legal fights delayed it.

After Satz spoke, Cruz's lawyers announced that they will not give their opening statement until it is time to present their case weeks from now. That is a rare and risky strategy because it gives Satz the only say before jurors examine grisly evidence and hear testimony from survivors and the victims' parents and spouses.

When lead defender Melisa McNeill gives her statement, she will likely emphasize that Cruz is a young adult with lifelong emotional and psychological problems who allegedly suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and abuse.

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 non-unanimous vote for any one of the victims means the shooter'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.

Regardless of the evidence, any juror can vote for life in prison out of mercy. During jury selection, the panelists said under oath that they are capable of voting for either sentence.

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