Florida jury spares Parkland school gunman’s death penalty

Oct 13 (Reuters) – A Florida jury decided on Thursday to spare the death penalty of Nicolas Cruz, the gunman who killed 17 people at a Parkland high school in 2018, instead of asking for life in prison.

Families of some victims shook their heads in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom as jury rejected prosecutors’ demands for Cruz’s death sentence in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history and established mitigating circumstances more than aggravating factors.

Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty last year to intentional murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Fort Lauderdale. Cruz killed 14 students and three staff with a semi-automatic rifle.

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The sentencing trial following Cruz’s guilty plea lasted three months. Jurors began deliberations on Wednesday. Under Florida law, a jury must unanimously recommend that a judge sentence Cruz to death. The only other option in the case is life in prison.

In a bid to avoid the death penalty, the defense called witnesses who testified about Cruz’s mental health disorder due to his biological mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy. Cruz’s half-sister testified that their mother was a heavy drinker and took drugs such as cocaine during her pregnancy.

Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has set formal sentencing on Nov. 1. Prosecutors told Scherer on Thursday that survivors should have another opportunity to testify at sentencing hearings about the impact of the shooting.

Prosecutors argue Cruz’s crimes were premeditated, heinous and cruel, one of the criteria under Florida law to determine whether the death penalty should be imposed. The sentencing process included testimonies from shooting survivors as well as cellphone videos of students crying for help or whispering while in hiding.

Cruz, 19, who had been expelled from high school at the time of the shooting, apologized for his crimes and asked for a life sentence without parole in order to dedicate his life to helping others.

The United States has experienced multiple school shootings in recent decades, including one in May in Uwald, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers.

Some teens who survived the Parkland atrocities formed March for Our Lives, a group calling for gun control legislation, such as a ban on assault-style rifles. President Joe Biden signed into law in June the first major federal gun reform legislation in 30 years, what he called a rare bipartisan achievement, even though it did not include an assault weapons ban.

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Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Donna Bryson.Edited by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis

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