Prosecutor recalls coldness, cruelty of Parkland gunman during sentencing trial

The prosecutor seeking the death penalty for the gunman who massacred 17 people at a Parkland, Florida, high school detailed for jurors Monday how Nikolas Cruz coldly mowed down his victims, returning to some as they lay wounded to finish them off with a second volley.

Some parents wept as prosecutor Mike Satz described in his opening statement how Cruz killed their children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Others sat stoically, their arms crossed over their chests. One woman who lost her daughter fled the courtroom, sobbing and holding a tissue to her face.

Satz's comments came at the start of the trial to determine whether Cruz is executed or serves life in prison without parole.

The prosecutor's presentation went over how Cruz shot each of the 14 students and three staff members who died and some of the 17 who were wounded. Some were shot sitting at their desks, some as they fled and some as they lay bleeding on the floor while Cruz methodically stalked through a three-story building for almost seven minutes with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murder and attempted murder and is only contesting his sentence. The trial, which is expected to last four months, was supposed to begin in 2020, but it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and legal fights.

Satz called the murders cold, calculated, cruel and heinous, quoting the video Cruz, then 19, made three days before the shooting.

"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,'" Satz said.

Among the first witnesses was Danielle Gilbert, a junior who was in a 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.

The jury was then shown cellphone video Gilbert took inside the classroom. The footage began with a girl curled up beneath the teacher's desk and others, including Gilbert, mostly unseen as they crouch behind it. About two dozen shots that seemed to be coming from just outside the door are heard in rapid succession as the fire alarm sounds. An unseen wounded boy cries out twice, “Someone help me."

The gunshots get further away, but the students remain quiet and huddled, speaking only in whispers. Eventually, the voices of police officers can be heard approaching. The teacher stands up, holding her head.

“They're coming, they're coming, we're OK,” a boy whispers.

SWAT officers, carrying rifles, then burst in, wanting to know if anyone is hurt. The students point and Gilbert stands up with her camera. A wounded boy and girl are carried out. A dead girl lies in a pool of blood. The officers tell the students to run out. They passed two more bodies lying in the hallway before exiting into a parking lot.

Her testimony over, Gilbert 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.

From the back of the courtroom, a relative of a girl who died in that classroom yelled for prosecutors to turn it off before bailiffs asked the woman to be quiet. The defense requested a mistrial over the outburst, but it was denied.

The seven-man, five-woman jury is backed up by 10 alternates. It is the nation’s deadliest mass shooting to go before a jury.

Nine other gunmen who killed at least 17 people died during or immediately after their shootings, either by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 slaying of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.

It wasn’t clear if anyone was in the courtroom to support Cruz, who sat at the defense table between his attorneys. During Satz's opening statement, 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.

After Satz spoke, Cruz's lawyers announced that they would 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 in the 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 Cruz's sentence for that person would be life in prison. The jurors are told that to vote for the death penalty, the aggravating circumstances presented by the prosecution 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.


Jury selection

The jurors currently on the main panel are two banking executives and two technology workers, a probation officer, a human resources professional and a Walmart store stock supervisor. Also included are a librarian, a medical claims adjuster, a legal assistant, a customs officer and a retired insurance executive.

The jury selection was filled with setbacks and possible mistrials over the questioning of possible jurors and COVID-19 cases on the defense.

The defense asked to delay the trial because of the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead. McNeill’s team argued that the shooting has again raised emotions in Broward County and makes it impossible for Cruz to get a fair trial currently.

Many of the possible jurors were not able to hold seat because of the time commitment for the lengthy process.

Full Recap: Jury sworn in to sentencing trial for Parkland high school shooter

Pleading guilty to all charges

Cruz pleaded guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the deadly shooting.

Legal analysts said Cruz’s plan to plead guilty to all charges in the Parkland shooting — along with the guilty plea in a battery on a jail guard charge — is a calculated move by his attorneys for him to avoid the death penalty.

Video below: Cruz pleads guilty in court

By pleading guilty to killing 17 people and attempting to kill 17 more in 2018, legal experts said Cruz is hoping to convince the jury that he is taking some responsibility for his actions.

"He’s trying to save his life, and the only way to do that is to take responsibility and not put all these poor people through a trial," criminal defense attorney Marc Shiner said.

Death penalty trials in Florida and much of the country often take two years to start because of their complexity, but Cruz's was further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and extensive legal wrangling.

If Cruz is sentenced to death, that will still not be the end of the process. Death sentences in Florida are given automatic priority review by the Florida Supreme Court.

Trial preparations

Trial preparations were extensive for what was expected to be the biggest murder trial in Broward County history for one of the most infamous crimes in Florida history.

Cruz was arrested about an hour after the attack with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle on Valentine's Day 2018.

Video below: Body camera of arrest of Nikolas Cruz released

His lawyers repeatedly offered to plead guilty in return for a guaranteed sentence of life in prison, but prosecutors refused to drop their pursuit of the death penalty.

Video below: Cruz interrogation video released

Much of the penalty phase is expected to focus on Cruz’s mental condition at the time of the slayings, with prosecutors emphasizing their horrific nature and Cruz’s intensive planning beforehand.

Victims of the Parkland school shooting

Seventeen students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Seventeen others were injured.

Can't see the graphic? Click here.

Settlement with Broward School District

The Broward County School District will pay more than $26 million to the families of the victims.

Board members approved the two legal settlements on in December 2021.

A total of $25 million will be shared by 51 plaintiffs, including families of the 17 dead as well as students and staff who were injured. Another $1.25 million will be paid in one lump sum to Anthony Borges, who suffered some of the most severe injuries.

Video below: Nikolas Cruz outlines shooting plan in video recording

Four years after shooting

For many families, they said there will never be closure for the loss of their loved ones.

Students and families turned into activists.

'I still can't believe this is my reality': Parkland parent creates way to track school violence after son is killed in school shooting

Jim Gard, a math teacher that day, said they were all victims.

"These kids that were in the class, just because they weren't hit doesn't mean they weren’t hit," he said.

And since that day, so many of those victims have refused to just sit back and do nothing. In the days following the shooting, a movement called March For Our Lives was born.

David Hogg was one of the founders.

"When we started doing the march, we thought there would be about 90 people that we could get up to D.C.," Hogg said. "We got near a million."

Video below: Father of Parkland victim hangs banner in view of White House four years after shooting

Four years later, March For Our Lives is still going strong with chapters across the country.

They’ve helped pass state laws designed to keep guns away from violent offenders. They’ve worked to get more federal funding to control gun violence.

'I have to accomplish her dream': Hunter Pollack changes career path after sister is murdered in Parkland massacre

It's become a full-time job nobody wants.

"We want our job to be done so we can go back to being college students or high school students and young people and young professionals," Hogg said.

When they watched the Parkland shooter plead guilty to the murders he committed, both Hogg and Gard are pleased to see this chapter end.

Video below: School safety changes made following Parkland school shooting

They just ask you not to call it closure.

"It's the parents of the kids, the parents who lost their children, I don’t know if there can ever be closure on that," Gard said. "I know for a lot of the people that I talked to, families that I talked to, there is not closure that can come. There’s nothing that will ever bring their kids back, their siblings back, their best friends back."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, call 211 or the National Suicide Hotline at 988.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.