Explainer: The Nikolas Cruz Verdict
And the midterms
I must apologize yet again for the delay between editions. I am going through another big transition, and I have been taking some time to learn more about healing and building my capacity to engage in challenging work without burning out and harming my body in the process. I am grateful for the work of Lumos Transforms and many others who are guides in this process.
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This week, I explain a recent event in the news — the verdict and sentencing in the Nikolas Cruz case (the young man who shot many and killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida).
The Trial and Verdict of Nikolas Cruz
After around three months of trial, the jury in the Nikolas Cruz trial determined that Mr. Cruz should receive life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP), and the judge sentenced him accordingly this past week.
First, Mr. Cruz’s charges and trial occurred in the state court system, specifically Broward County, Florida. He was indicted on 34 charges, all of which are murder in the first degree and attempted murder in the first degree, by a grand jury in Broward County. The Broward County Public Defender was appointed to handle Mr. Cruz’s case, and they did so all the way through trial.
After the indictment, the Broward County prosecutors notified the court, Mr. Cruz (and his public defender, Melisa McNeill) that they would seek the death penalty.
In October of 2021, despite facing the death penalty, Mr. Cruz pleaded guilty to all 34 charges long before the trial began. This means that Mr. Cruz admitted before the court that he was guilty of all of the charges against him.
As a result, the trial we read about or watched was solely to determine whether Mr. Cruz would be sentenced to LWOP or to death. To sentence someone to death in the state of Florida (and every state in the U.S. except Alabama, which requires at least a 10-2 verdict), a jury must vote unanimously. This has not always been the case. Only a few years ago, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held Florida’s previous law, allowing for non-unanimity, unconstitutional. Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion.
Explaining Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
To make a crime eligible for the death penalty in Florida, there must be aggravating factors — factors that make the crime something beyond, something that increases the gravity of the crime. When the prosecution notifies both the court and the person charged with a crime that they intend to seek the death penalty, they must include the aggravating factors they intend to prove in that notice.
Under Florida statute, the state needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at least one of the fifteen statutorily defined aggravating factors in order to sentence someone to death.
In this case, the prosecutors stated they would endeavor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the following aggravating factors — that Mr. Cruz:
committed his crimes in a “in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification,”
that the crimes he committed were ”especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,”
that he “knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons,” and
that he was “previously convicted” of another felony involving the “use or threat of violence to the person.”
If the jury unanimously finds that the state has proven at lease one of these four aggravating factors, which they did in the case of Mr. Cruz, the person on trial may be sentenced to death.
Mitigating circumstances are just what they sound like — factors that mitigate, or some how reduce the person’s culpability. Some examples of statutory (or legally defined) circumstances are:
the defendant has no significant history of prior criminal activity.
the capital felony was committed while the defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.
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 age of the defendant at the time of the crime.
The defense typically puts on evidence to support both statutory mitigating circumstances (like the examples above) or any other circumstances the defense believes is relevant — “The existence of any other factors in the defendant’s background that would mitigate against imposition of the death penalty.”
In Mr. Cruz’s case, the defense put forward significant mitigation evidence. The New York Times summarized
Lawyers defending the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, focused on aspects of his life that they said had left him a damaged person from birth, with a slew of developmental problems and sometimes violent behavior that overwhelmed his adoptive mother.
In Ms. O’Neill’s opening statement, she said, “Because Nikolas was bombarded by all of those things, he was poisoned in the womb. Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own.” For more on the mitigating evidence, check out CNN’s article, “"How Nikolas Cruz’s defense persuaded a jury to spare his life.”
The Jury Decides
Once the aggravating and mitigating factors are put forward, to be sentenced to death, the jury must decide “whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating circumstances reasonably established by the evidence,” and if so, the jury must unanimously find both that the aggravators outweigh the mitigators, and that the person should receive the death penalty.
In other words, once all of the evidence in the penalty phase is put to the jury, the jury must unanimously decide three things in order for the person to be assessed the death penalty:
whether the State proved the aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt
whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors presented
whether the person should be sentenced to death
If the jury is not unanimous in any of the three, the person will receive LWOP.
In Mr. Cruz’s case, the jury unanimously found that the State had proven all of the aggravating factors, however, three jurors found that the aggravating factors did not outweigh the mitigating factors and that Mr. Cruz should not be sentenced to death.
In Florida, the judge must adhere to the findings of the jury, and this past week, the judge sentenced Mr. Cruz to LWOP. Mr. Cruz will likely spend the rest of his life in a Florida state prison.
There have been allegations of jurors feelings threatened, potentially by other jurors. While it is highly unlikely that this will change the outcome of the verdict or the sentencing, certainly this is something to keep an eye on going forward.
Florida is now having a debate about whether jury unanimity should be required in death penalty trials. Because unanimity is written into state law, the Florida legislature would need to re-write the criminal procedure statute that determines the requirements for capital cases. For more about that, check out this NPR and The Associated Press.
Unless his plea deal forbids it,Mr. Cruz has the right to appeal the verdict and the sentence. He may also choose to attack his verdict and sentence through other kinds of post-conviction proceedings.
Lastly, and importantly, the families of those who lost loved ones in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the survivors have been outspoken with their anger and disappointment in the way the system worked. Many wanted Mr. Cruz to receive the death penalty, and feel that if there were ever a case to impose death, this was it.
There is no question that the outcome of this case could change Florida’s laws and practices around the death penalty. There is also no question that what happened at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, for so many reasons and at so many levels have left an indelible mark on our conscience as a state and as a nation.
Before you go, here are some articles I’ve been reading ahead of the midterm elections next week:
Udi Ofer, “Politicians' Tough-on-Crime Messaging Could Have Devastating Consequences,” Time
Sandhya Dirks, “Rising crime statistics are not all that they seem,” NPR
Jamiles Lartey and Weihua Li, “Ahead of Midterms, Most Americans Say Crime is Up. What Does the Data Say?,” The Marshall Project
Alejandra Caraballo, “We’re Going to See Abortion Fugitives. Here’s How to Protect Them,” Slate
Radley Balko, Your guide to crime and the midterms, The Watch
Eva McKend and Brandon Tensley, “What critics of progressive prosecution get wrong about crime spikes and the reform movement,” CNN
Chris Kemmitt and Premal Dharia, Plea bargaining and mass incarceration go hand in hand. We need to end both, USA Today
Please get out and vote!
Thank you as always for reading!
I say “likely” because there is a very remote chance that Mr. Cruz’s sentence could be overturned during appeals or habeas proceedings, or some other legal eventuality. This is highly unlikely.
This is for federal courts, but sometimes plea deals can prohibit a defendant from challenging his/her guilty plea or sentence: Carissa Byrne Hessick, “A Federal Appeals Court Just Devastated the Power of Judges to Reject Bad Plea Deals,” Slate, April 29, 2022.