A year after Nikolas Cruz massacred 17 people and injured 17 others at his former high school in Florida, the question is not whether he’s guilty — he’s confessed on video. It’s does he live or die?
His defense team has offered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole — but only if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table. Prosecutors have rejected the plea, meaning a lengthy trial is all but inevitable.
If the case goes to trial, Cruz will join a short list of mass shooters who’ve faced their victims in court. Of the 10 deadliest shootings in recent US history, Cruz is the only one who was captured alive.
Here’s the latest on his case:
The trial has not started yet
The case is on what’s described as the “pretrial discovery” stage, says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz. He says the case is a long way from trial.
Some witnesses are giving statements
In this stage, Cruz’s attorneys have been deposing dozens of witnesses to give oral statements under oath.
Such sessions happen behind closed doors and are only attended by attorneys, the court reporter and the victims’ advocate, says Richard Hornsby, a criminal defense lawyer in Florida who is not involved in the case. Depositions are conducted in person by prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the defendant is not allowed to be present, he adds.
“It is common for victims/accusers to be deposed. However, from a strategic standpoint, I could not imagine the defense attorneys deposing the survivors in this case without a good reason,” Hornsby says.
The Broward County Clerk of Court’s website lists deposition notices for mostly law enforcement witnesses.
It’s the beginning of a long, arduous process
A death penalty case can take years to go to trial.
The process itself has three stages. The current pretrial stage, where the discovery is conducted; the guilt phase, where the trial is conducted; and if convicted as charged, the penalty phase where a jury determines whether to impose the death penalty or not, Hornsby says.
Death penalty cases are so staggering in scope, it can take at least two years for the case to go to trial, he says. The process involves painstakingly combing through graphic details of the shooting in court. No detail is too small, including the gunshots, autopsies and the killer’s words.
“However, with the judge pushing the case hard and the passage of Marsy’s Law last fall, I would not be surprised if this case makes it to trial early next fall,” Hornsby says.
Marsy’s Law expanded the rights of victims of crimes, including giving them the right to have a voice in prosecution issues.
Prosecutors have so far rejected a plea deal
Broward state prosecutors have not revealed much in recent months. But in the past, they’ve rejected the defense’s offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, paving the way for a lengthy trial.
While the prosecution did not respond to CNN’s request for comments for this article, Michael Satz, Broward County’s prosecutor, has previously said this is “certainly the type of case the death penalty was designed for.” Assistant State Attorney Shari Tate has said Florida will not allow Cruz to “choose his own punishment for the murder of 17 people.”
The defense does not want a trial
Cruz’s defense team has made it clear it’s not looking forward to a death penalty trial.
That’s why Finkelstein is offering his client’s guilty plea in exchange for 34 life sentences without parole. That would take the death penalty trial off the table and spare the victims from reliving the nightmare during testimony, he says.
That would end the extensive legal process he says could last decades if there’s an appeal. In some cases, death penalty trials are followed by lengthy appeals in which survivors return to court to face the killer all over again.
“A plea to 34 consecutive life sentences ends not only the above immediately but means no appeals,” Finkelstein says. “We still stand ready to plead guilty to 34 consecutive life sentences.”
Some survivors are conflicted
Some Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are conflicted on the possibility of a death penalty trial.
Student leader Emma Gonzalez describes Cruz’s potential death penalty trial as a “good” thing. Another student, Cameron Kasky, has said he wants him to “rot forever” in prison instead.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was one of the people killed, has said he does not plan to attend any death trial hearings.
“I don’t want to go through some lengthy trial that’s going to be brutal. I want him to sit in a cell and rot for the rest of his life,” Pollack says.
Even the jurors face challenges
In high-profile cases such as the Parkland shooting, there are no shortages of challenges for everyone involved. Even finding a jury will be an ordeal, Hornsby says.
“Since the state is seeking the death penalty, any juror who is opposed to the death penalty will automatically be stricken, meaning the selected jury panel will already be predisposed to consider the death penalty as a viable sentencing option before the first witness is called,” he says.
Jury selection will likely take weeks because the trial may be moved to a different venue, according to Hornsby.
“You will have to find people who say they could be fair and impartial to the defendant given what they know about the Parkland murders,” he says. “Good luck.”
Florida’s death penalty law requires the jury’s decision to be unanimous. If one of the 12 jurors dissents, the defendant must be sentenced to life without parole.