Prosecutors of Parkland school shooter open with evidence of 'cold, calculated' shooting
The evidence on the first day of the trial was brutal and graphic. It was also a taste of what the next few months of the trial will be like.
In a 17th floor courtroom in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, a panel of 22 jurors were confronted with the grisly reality of America’s gun violence epidemic in excruciating detail — and in a way few juries have ever contended with in this country’s history. The sentencing trial of the Parkland shooter began in earnest on Monday. It’s considered the deadliest school shooting case to ever go before a jury.
Over the coming months, these 12 jurors and 10 alternates — among them a librarian, a retired insurance executive, a Walmart store supervisor — will decide whether the gunman deserves to die for massacring 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
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During this process, the jury will relive the massacre by listening to 911 calls frantically dialed as students huddled behind desks, and by watching cell phone videos and surveillance footage that forever captured the terror of that day.
Brittany Sinitch was in her first year of teaching in 2018. She says that on the day of the shooting, her students were reading "Romeo and Juliet" and making Valentine’s cards inspired by the characters. Then, they heard what she described as “the loudest noise you can possibly imagine.”
“It just wouldn’t stop. I don’t have an absolute correct number or an accurate number that I could count. It just kept going and going and going,” Sinitch said. “They were incredibly loud … it’s like you could just feel it within your body, all throughout your chest.”
Danielle Gilbert was a junior at the school and was in a psychology class when the shooting began. She testified that she instinctively started filming. Sixteen-year-old Carmen Schentrup died after being shot in that classroom.
“We were just sitting, kind of like sitting ducks,” Gilbert testified. “We had no way to protect ourselves. No way to stand up for ourselves.”
It was a brutal and emotional formal start to the sentencing trial of Nikolas Cruz, after months of delays and a protracted jury selection process. He pleaded guilty to all 17 killings in October of 2021. The question now is whether the shooter will be executed or be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
The 17 people who were killed: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Chris Hixon, 49; 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.
The prosecution made its opening statements and called its first witnesses to testify in a courtroom packed with family members of those who were murdered. The defense team opted to wait to deliver its opening statement later in the trial.
“I’m going to speak to you about the unspeakable,” lead prosecutor and former Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz told the jury, “about this defendant’s goal: directed, planned, systematic murder — mass murder — of 14 children and an athletic director, a teacher and a coach.”
Many family members appeared to be in agony as the prosecution played a 911 call and cell phone videos taken from inside the besieged classrooms that day. The audio was played for all in the courtroom to hear while jurors, the judge, attorneys and the witnesses themselves could watch the videos on monitors out of view of the rest of the courtroom.
Sitting in the audience, some family members covered their ears to try to block out the deafening sound of gunshots and the cries of the traumatized, the injured and the dying. One woman ran out of the courtroom to stop from hearing it.
“Turn it off, stop it,” one woman in the courtroom gallery cried as the prosecution played a classroom video.
The outburst prompted the defense to request a mistrial, which Judge Elizabeth Scherer quickly denied.
In addition to the 17 who were killed and the 17 others injured, untold numbers of students, faculty, staff and family members were forever changed by the massacre, which traumatized the community and sparked an unprecedented nationwide movement for gun control led by student survivors.
In his hour-long opening statement, Satz told the jury where and how each victim died. The prosecutor retraced the shooter’s steps that day as he moved from floor to floor, classroom to classroom. He told the jurors that they will see with their own eyes the gruesome school surveillance video of the killings.
“You will see the defendant on the first floor, fire a rifle, shoot and kill nine students, the athletic director and a coach,” Satz said. “You will see him wound 13 other students on the first floor and you'll see him wound three other students on the third floor.”
The defense team will deliver their opening arguments when they present their side of the case, which could be weeks or months from now. The sentencing proceedings are estimated to run through October.
The trial is exceedingly rare. In a country wracked by mass shootings, many gunmen are either killed by law enforcement officers or commit suicide. As with any trial, the jury is ordered to not discuss the case with anyone – not even a spouse, a priest, or a therapist. The grisly evidence the jurors will examine and the gutting testimony will be their burden to bear until the trial concludes.
Prosecutors will make their case for the death penalty on each of the 17 counts of murder – arguing that seven of the aggravating factors outlined in state law apply to the case.
“The evidence will show that there was great risk, obviously, of death to many people,” Satz said, “that the murders – all 17 were heinous, atrocious and cruel. All 17 were cold, calculated and premeditated.”
The defense team will argue that mitigating circumstances like the shooter’s history of mental illness should outweigh those factors. His birth mother abused alcohol and drugs when she was pregnant with him, which his attorneys argue left him intellectually disabled and exhibiting behavioral issues as early as preschool.
All 12 jurors must agree unanimously in order to sentence the shooter to death. If just one juror disagrees, the sentence will be life in prison.