Nikolas Cruz: Parkland shooter’s life sentence could bring changes to law

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL– It wasn’t long ago that Nikolas Cruz, the Florida school gunman, would have expected a near-certain death sentence for the murder of 17 people in Parkland, even though his jury couldn’t agree on his fate.

Until 2016, Florida law allowed trial judges to hand down a death sentence if a majority of the jury agreed. By a 9-3 vote Thursday to execute Cruz, District Judge Elizabeth Scherer likely would have sent him to death row for the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High massacre.

Now, however, a vote of less than 12-0 means an automatic life sentence without parole — a standard that the Stoneman Douglas families and the chief of the district attorney’s office want changed. That would put Florida back in a distinct minority among the 27 states that still have the death penalty, almost all of which require jury unanimity.

Ed Brodsky, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, believes next year the legislature will consider amending the law it passed after two court decisions rejected the old law.

“If there is an overwhelming majority and opinion as to what the ultimate punishment should be, should a minority vote be able to dominate and hijack the judiciary?” said Brodsky, the attorney-ate-elect for Sarasota County and its neighbors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized the ruling at a news conference Friday, but declined to specify what changes he would support.

“We need to make some reforms to better serve crime victims and crime victims’ families and not always bend over backwards to do whatever we need to do for crime perpetrators,” DeSantis said.

Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to the February 14, 2018 murder of 14 Stoneman-Douglas students and three staff members. That left the seven-member and five-member jury only to decide whether he would be sentenced to life or death without parole.

The three-month trial included horrifying videos, photos and testimonies of the Cruz murders. A defense statement followed about his birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy, which witnesses said created a brain-damaged person who began exhibiting erratic, bizarre and violent behavior at the age of 2.

After seven hours of deliberations, the jury announced Thursday that they unanimously agreed with prosecutors’ argument that aggravating factors, such as the multiple deaths and Cruz’s planning, existed, but not whether they outweighed the extenuating circumstances. Scherer will hand out Cruz’s life sentence on November 1.

“If this wasn’t the most perfect case of the death penalty, then why do we even have the death penalty?” said Linda Beigel Schulman, mother of murdered teacher Scott Beigel.

But some defense attorneys and death penalty experts said it wasn’t surprising the jury couldn’t unanimously agree. Last year there were only 18 death sentences nationwide, two of them in Florida.

The latest Gallup poll showed that 54% of Americans support the death penalty, up from 80% in the mid-1990s. And while the Cruz jury all said they could vote for the death penalty if elected, they didn’t say they support it.

“At first glance, you’re like, ‘My God, how can you not vote for the death penalty?'” said Richard Escobar, a defense attorney and former Tampa prosecutor. He has attempted capital cases in both roles. “But you have to think and think to yourself, ‘If that person really had a mental illness, you shouldn’t give them the death penalty because they got that mental illness through no fault of their own.'”

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the Cruz case had a lot in common with the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, which killed 12 people. In that case, 11 jurors voted for death while one dissented based on testimonies of the shooter’s insanity. That meant a life sentence.

“It’s not a question of whether the murder justifies the death penalty.[Cruz]is clearly the type of case where a jury could reasonably award the death penalty,” Dunham said. “The question is, ‘Does the defendant deserve the death penalty?'”

Florida’s law, which allowed a majority jury vote, was in effect for decades before it was repealed, but it was an outlier. Almost all death penalty states required or adopted unanimity in those years. Alabama allows a death sentence by a 10-2 vote. Missouri and Indiana leave it up to the judge to decide whether the jury unanimously agrees that the aggravating circumstances exist but cannot agree on a verdict.

In 2016, the US Supreme Court threw out the Florida law by an 8-1 vote, saying the judge had too much weight in the decision.

The legislature passed a bill that required a 10-2 jury recommendation, but the state Supreme Court overturned it. In 2017, the law was changed to require a unanimous jury.

Three years later, however, DeSantis, a Republican, replaced three retired Florida judges with more conservative jurists, and the state court overturned the earlier decision. It said a death recommendation no longer needed to be unanimous, but lawmakers in three annual sessions failed to amend the law from unanimity. DeSantis never pushed her.

David S. Weinstein, a criminal defense attorney and former Miami prosecutor, doesn’t think DeSantis and the legislature will make changes to unanimity again next year — it would risk the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out the state law again.

“The ship has sailed,” he said.

But will the verdict against Cruz make Florida prosecutors less likely to seek the death penalty?

Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami who used to handle death penalty appeals, doesn’t think so.

“It might even harden their resolve,” he said.

Still, it’s difficult to make general predictions about the impact of edge cases like Cruz. No US mass shooter who killed as many or more as Cruz had ever been brought to justice – nine were killed by themselves or police during or immediately after their attack. A tenth awaits trial in Texas.

On Cruz’s side, it’s rare for attorneys to have so much documentation supporting their extenuating circumstances. Broward’s public defender’s office also had better quality attorneys to assign to Cruz’s case and more money for investigations than their counterparts in smaller jurisdictions typically do, he said.

In those counties, “mitigation would be a witness and it would be mom saying, ‘He was always a troubled kid,'” Trocino said.


Gresko reported from Washington, DC Farrington reported from Tallahassee, Florida. AP reporter Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Nikolas Cruz: Parkland shooter’s life sentence could bring changes to law

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