On Feb. 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz took an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where he murdered 17 people and wounded 17 others. This horrific crime was one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.
If ever there was a living embodiment of what some death penalty supporters call the “worst of the worst,” a poster boy for the supposed necessity of capital punishment, Nikolas Cruz seemed to be it.
Yet Thursday a jury of seven men and five women, drawn from all walks of life, sentenced Cruz to life in prison without parole instead of sending him to join the 305 other people currently awaiting execution on Florida’s death row.
This verdict was made possible because Florida law says that death sentences can only be imposed if the jury is unanimous. In Cruz’s case, three jurors refused to vote for death because they were convinced by his defense that he is mentally ill.
Even though not everyone on the jury agreed to spare Cruz’s life, the verdict is a singularly important moment in the ongoing debate about whether this country should continue to use death as a punishment for crimes. Coming from deep red, Florida, a state long known as a hotbed of capital punishment, it is all the more significant.
Over the last several decades, the death penalty landscape has changed considerably. Across the country, death sentences are way down, as are executions. The intensity of public support for capital punishment has waned and more states have abolished it in the last 15 years than in any other comparable period in American history.
Those changes have been propelled by growing recognition of the death penalty’s arbitrariness and unreliability, most especially worries about the risk of executing the innocent and of racial discrimination in capital sentencing.
But, before the Cruz case, this changing landscape had not saved the lives of mass murderers like him. What happened, and why is the Cruz case different?
For one thing, none of the usual anti-death penalty arguments were at play here.
There was no doubt about Cruz’s guilt. On October 20, 2021, just under a year before Thursday’s jury verdict, after the prosecution laid out in grim detail what Cruz had done, he said he was guilty thirty four separate times.
Afterwards, according to a New York Times report, “Mr. Cruz, 23, apologized to… (the families of his victims) as he hunched over a podium. Appearing to read from a prepared statement, he said he had had trouble living with himself. ‘I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day.’”
And, while in the run up to his crime, Cruz spewed racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism to a private Instagram group, he did not target any particular group during his killing spree. There also was no hint of racial animus in his prosecution.
During Cruz’s trial, the prosecution argued that he deserved to be executed because of the gravity and horror of the crimes he committed.
Michael Satz, the lead prosecutor, claimed that Cruz’s killings were cold blooded and meticulously planned. He told the jury that Cruz had spent hours doing research on other mass shootings and the people who perpetrated them.
According to the prosecution, Cruz’s planning included modifying his AR-15 to help him shoot more accurately, accumulating large stores of ammunition, and trying to determine what the likely police response time would be to a shooting at the high school.
Cruz’s defense conceded that the crimes were indeed horrible. But they carefully explained to the jury that the crimes resulted from the extraordinarily difficult circumstances of Cruz’s birth, his problematic childhood, and his continuing and unaddressed mental health issues. They argued that these circumstances offered grounds for mercy and should mitigate his punishment.
Florida law lists eight kinds of mitigating factors, including that “The capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired.” The last of the eight factors is a general catchall which allows jurors great latitude. It says simply that they could consider, “The existence of any other factors in the defendant’s background that would mitigate against imposition of the death penalty.”
As Melisa McNeill, one of Cruz’s defense lawyers, told the jury, “Nikolas was … poisoned in the womb. Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own.”
In the end, all of the jurors agreed that the prosecution had proven that the killings were particularly aggravated, including that the killings were cruel and heinous.
But the three jurors who voted against the death penalty were persuaded that the mitigating factors in the case outweighed the things that the prosecution had proven.
The Cruz trial is all the more important because it is unusual to have a trial of any kind in a mass shooting case. As the Times notes, “Most either kill themselves or die in a confrontation with the police during their attacks.”
When there have been death penalty trials in mass shooting cases, juries generally return death verdicts. They have done so even when the defendants had top flight and well-funded teams of defense lawyers and experts.
Take the case of Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1997 a jury in Denver, where his trial held, showed him no mercy and voted unanimously that he should be executed.
In 2015, a jury in Boston sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing despite pleas from some of the families of his victims for a life-in-prison sentence.
In 2017, Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black people during a bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in South Carolina, was likewise sentenced to death, again over objections from some of his victims’ families.
Of course, each of these cases had its own distinctive character. But they set the stage for what seemed like an almost certain death verdict in the Cruz case.
Until three jurors refused to follow the expected script.
Their decision suggests that some Americans are now ready to believe what the renowned death penalty defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson tells juries about all his clients: “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Those three jurors concluded that this maxim applies to mass murderers as well.
And their verdict in the Cruz case is just the latest indication that the death penalty is losing its hold on America.