FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The first day of the penalty phase trial for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz began Monday.
(LIVESTREAM OF THE TRIAL CAN BE SEEN AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE, ALONG WITH ANALYSIS FROM LOCAL 10′S JANINE STANWOOD AND LEGAL EXPERTS.)
Juror questioned about allegedly discussing case outside of court:
Monday’s hearing started with the judge acknowledging that someone had informed the court that one female juror had spoken about the trial at a doctor’s appointment.
The juror, however, swore under oath that she never discussed the case, the defendant or her feelings about the case.
Assistant State Attorney Michael Satz asked Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer why the person who reported the alleged incident would lie, but Scherer said she found the juror to be credible and there’s all sorts of reasons for people to lie, whether it be that they want their 15 minutes of fame or are just “mean.”
Scherer ultimately kept the juror on and asked her to remember that she was not allowed to talk about the case with anyone during the duration of the trial.
State delivers opening statement:
Satz began the state’s opening statement a short time later, taking well over an hour to discuss how Cruz got to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, what he did when he got there and the victims whose lives he took.
“This is a planned, systematic mass murder of 14 children, an athletic director, a teacher and a coach,” Satz told the jurors.
The lead prosecutor called the mass shooting a “cold and calculated attack” and noted the exact time that the shooting began -- 2:21:33, at which time Cruz fired the first shots at four students in a hallway after he alerted another student who he saw in a stairwell that something bad was going to happen.
Satz also recited a recording that the gunman made shortly before the shooting:
“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 … I can’t wait.”
Cruz pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Several jurors were seen diligently taking notes as Satz delivered his opening statements.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression and jurors watch everything we do in the courtroom,” legal analyst David Weinstein said. “And for Mr. Satz to stand up in front of them and have such a command of the names of the victims, how many shots were fired, where the defendant entered, what he did when he was there, the number of bullets, the caliber – that has to have an impact on these people.”
Satz delivered harrowing details as he sought to explain why Cruz deserves to be sentenced to death.
“I am going to speak to you about the unspeakable,” Satz told the jury before explaining the deaths of each victim.
“Jaime Guttenberg was able to reach the door but she collapsed on the third floor stairwell, and that’s where she died,” he said.
Satz said nine students were killed on the first floor.
He walked jurors through the crime scene, hallway by hallway.
“And you will see him shoot and kill five students on the third floor,” Satz said.
Satz also noted the ages of the victims and the number of times they were shot.
“The defendant walks up to him and fires into Peter Wang again. Peter Wang was shot 13 times,” he said.
Seeking a death verdict, Satz stressed the evidence they will want jurors to consider.
“The murders -- all 17 -- were heinous, atrocious and cruel,” he said.
Helena Ramsay’s mother left the courtroom in tears as Satz recounted how and when Cruz shot the victims.
Another family member was quietly crying while across the courtroom, Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was killed in the school shooting, took a deep breath and closed his eyes when Satz first said his daughter’s name.
State calls first witnesses:
The state’s first witness was MSD teacher Brittany Sinitch. She testified that on the day of the shooting her classroom was on the first floor of the 1200 building.
State’s first witness: Brittany Sinitch, #MSD teacher. She said on the day of the shooting her classroom was on the first floor of the 1200 building. Background: “I truly thought room 1218 was my safe space, until February 14th when everything changed.” https://t.co/sm4igKh2Hv— Christina Boomer Vazquez, M.S. (@CBoomerVazquez) July 18, 2022
Danielle Gilbert, who was a student at MSD at the time, took the stand next.
Gilbert cried as the state played the videos she took on her cellphone during the shooting.
One family member ran out of the courtroom in tears as you could hearing moaning, crying and screaming in the videos.
Other relatives of victims held hands as they listened.
Jennifer Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, was killed in the shooting, plugged her ears with her fingers at one point.
Cruz, meanwhile, kept his head down as the videos played. He appeared distressed and was seen rubbing his eyes.
Parkland survivor Dylan Kraemer, who was a junior when the shooting occurred, testified next.
He described how he and other students pushed a file cabinet in front of a door as they tried to hide from the gunman.
He described witnessing two students being fatally shot as Cruz shot through the window of the door.
The state also called retired FBI Special Agent Carlos M. Catillo, who specializes in digital forensics. He testified to what Weinstien descriibed as
Judge denies motion for mistrial
Following a mid-afternoon recess, the defense made a motion for Scherer to declare a mistrial, alleging prosecutors had volume set at its highest level when replaying video in the courtroom.
A member of the Ramsay family inside the courtroom yelled out to “shut it down” while one video was being played.
Scherer quickly denied the motion.
Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann did admit, though, that the volume was “extremely loud.”
DAY ONE ANALYSIS FROM LEGAL EXPERT DAVID WEINSTEIN:
Background of penalty phase trial:
Cruz faces either life in prison or the death penalty.
Authorities say Cruz, then 19 years old, used an AR-15 rifle, during the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
Cruz shot and killed seven 14-year-old students -- Alaina Petty, Alex Schachter, Alyssa Alhadeff, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Jamie Guttenberg and Martin Duque.
He killed two 15-year-old boys, Peter Wang and Luke Hoyer, and he killed students Carmen Schentrup, 16; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Helena Ramsay, 17; and Meadow Pollack, 18.
Cruz also killed three school employees: Scott Beigel, 35, cross country coach and geography teacher; Aaron Feis, 37, an assistant football coach and security monitor; and Chris Hixon, 49, an athletic director and wrestling coach.
In June, seven men and five women swore to serve as jurors in the case.
Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer estimates the trial will run for four to five months.
The jury’s decision must be unanimous for the death penalty to stand. Otherwise, Scherer will have to sentence Cruz to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
9 AM REPORT: