What to expect from opening statements in the Parkland school shooter death penalty trial

Opening statements offer jurors an overview of each side’s case

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – “Monday presents one of the most significant days in the course of this process,” legal analyst David Weinstein tells Local 10′s Christina Vazquez. “Significant not only for the defendant, but for the families of the victims and the survivors of what happened on Valentine’s Day many years ago.”

On Valentine’s Day, 2018, then 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School staff and students; and hurt another 17 people.

His guilty pleas to the 17 murders set up the penalty phase that began with jury selection on April 4.

Opening statements are scheduled for Monday.

Think of opening statements as a preview into what each side will present as evidence during the trial.

For the attorneys, “this is their opportunity to present the overview of what they want the jurors to consider,” explained Weinstein.

He says to expect prosecutors, who are seeking a death verdict, to stress the premeditated and heinous actions of the shooter, and “evidence about an aggravating factor, which is something that the state believes would make a juror vote in favor of the death penalty,” explained Weinstein.

“Those factors include the sheer number of victims involved in this case, other convictions that Cruz has, the planning he undertook beforehand,” said Weinstein. “The state is going to use this opportunity to open with a rather emotional and impactful statement to these jurors.”

“One of the more compelling aggravating factors that the prosecution will focus on,” said Weinstein, “would be the premeditation that went into this mass shooting.”

Related Link: Explainer: What are aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances?

As for the defense, he expects they will approach aspects of the shooter’s childhood and background.

“They want them to consider the age of Nikolas Cruz and his mental condition at the time of the shooting and that he was under, in their mind, duress,” explained Weinstein.

That evidence falls under mitigating circumstances, which “is something that the defense believes would provide a reason for a juror to vote against the death penalty and in favor of a life sentence.”

“The defense will have to attune these jurors to listen for what they believe will be the mitigating factors that suggest from their perspective their client is the one worth saving. They are going to harp on his mental condition, what existed in his mind at the time, and that while there may be aggravating factors,” said Weinstein, “that the mitigating factors they are presenting, including his age, is a mitigating factor that would override all these other aggravating factors. It is a tough road for them to proceed down on.”

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."