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Parkland mass shooting: What to expect from the last phase of the Stoneman Douglas sentencing trial


School Shooting Florida

A memorial to the victims is seen outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., during the one-year anniversary of the school shooting, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. The three story building in the background is where the massacre happened. Jurors in the trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz are expected to walk through the still blood-spattered rooms of the high school Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in a visit to the three-story building where he murdered 14 students and three staff members four years ago. Associated Press file

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting trial enters its final phase next week, with prosecutors looking to shift the focus from the defendant’s numerous mental health issues back to the crime he committed on Valentine’s Day 2018.

The state on Tuesday will begin presenting what’s called a rebuttal case. It’s the one chance prosecutors get to answer the defense pleas for sympathy on behalf of confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz.

Don’t expect a replay of the case prosecutors presented from July 18 to Aug. 23. That case relied heavily on a detailed narrative that took jurors through the tragedy as it unfolded, from the planning stages six months before the shooting to the immediate aftermath and the defendant’s successful effort to flee the scene undetected. Jurors were subjected to dozens of crime scene and autopsy photos, culminating in emotionally wrenching testimony from the 17 slain victims’ families and a tour of the undisturbed crime scene at the Parkland campus.

“This isn’t for the state to repeat what they’ve already said,” said Broward defense attorney David Bogenschutz, who is not connected with the case. “Rebuttal is limited by law to what the defense brought up in its case.”

School Shooting Florida

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table during the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Friday, Sept. 2. Testimony at Cruz’s trial shows that chaos reigned in the home he shared with his widowed mother and brother. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The trial resumes Monday, Sept. 12. Associated Press file

It’s impossible to tell whether the defense presentation resonated with the jury that will be deciding the defendant’s fate. Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill told the jury to consider Cruz’s mental illness to place his crime in context, not to excuse it – to distinguish the atrocity from the person who committed it.

Since the majority of the defense case focused on diagnoses of mental illnesses suffered by Cruz, along with the failed attempts to help him from earliest childhood, the prosecution is likely to focus on the same issues.

“They’re going to call experts who will minimize or neutralize what the defense experts said,” said Chuck Morton, a retired homicide prosecutor who was once chief deputy to lead prosecutor Mike Satz. “His psychological condition certainly had an impact on his control of his emotions, his outbursts and his anger. But did it lead him to kill 17 people? There must be hundreds if not thousands of people with similar mental conditions who did not go on to kill anyone.”

The last round of witnesses will likely make that point, whether they are experts brought in to review the case or people who encountered Cruz in the years before the shooting, said former prosecutor Ken Padowitz, now a defense lawyer. “They have to show the jury why they can’t really rely on what the defense experts told them. Show that they were wrong either in their diagnoses or in the implications of his mental illness.”

School Shooting Florida

Patricia “Trish” Devaney Westerlind becomes emotional as she testifies during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Devaney Westerlind lived in Parkland from 1998 to 2008 and was a neighbor of the Cruz family. Cruz previously plead guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings. Associated Press file

It will be up to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to make sure prosecutors Mike Satz, Jeff Marcus and the rest of their team stick to the limits of a rebuttal case. “The testimony … must relate in some way to a mitigating factor introduced by the defendant,” she wrote in a recent ruling. “This court assumes that the state is keenly aware of these parameters.”

Prosecutors are also barred from using their rebuttal case to shift the trial’s focus back to the victims or compare the severity of the crime with any compassion jurors might feel as a result of the defense case. Those strategies are reserved for closing arguments, scheduled to begin Oct. 10.

Cruz, who turns 24 on Saturday, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. He faces the death penalty for each murder count. The jury must be unanimous to recommend a death sentence. A single dissenting juror would ensure Cruz is sentenced to life in prison.


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