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At sentencing, Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz faces the death penalty

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Life in prison or the death penalty? That's the choice a Florida jury will start deciding today in the case against Nikolas Cruz. He has already pleaded guilty to murdering 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School back in 2018. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Greg, this was a horrific shooting at the high school in Parkland, Fla. Unlike a lot of other mass shootings, though, the gunman survived and now stands trial. Can you remind us what happened?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Right. Well, Rachel, this was in 2018. Nikolas Cruz was a former student at the school. But he had been expelled. He entered through an unlocked side door that day and rampaged through a school building. It was February 14. He killed 14 students and three staff members that day. He wounded 17 others, some severely. He escaped from the scene by dropping his AR-15-style rifle and then blending in with the crowd of students. And he was captured shortly afterwards by police just a few miles from the school.

MARTIN: And Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges last fall, right?

ALLEN: Right. And this has been a very tough case for the defense since the beginning. The main facts were never really in dispute. Witnesses identified him at the scene. There's surveillance video of the shootings. He recorded video of himself right before the shooting. He then confessed to the shootings to the police. His defense worked for many months to try to secure a deal where he'd plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors refused. And he eventually entered a guilty plea anyhow. This is all seen as an effort by Cruz to take responsibility, to show remorse and, perhaps, escape the death penalty. But it's a tough case to make. Here's Tony Montalto. His daughter, Gina, was one of the students who were killed that day. He believes the jury will agree with most of the victims' families that the death penalty is the appropriate sentence.

TONY MONTALTO: I think the facts that are available already show that this was a deliberate, calculated and coldhearted act. Let's remember, he went back and shot Gina and the others again after he had shot them the first time.

ALLEN: The jury will weigh aggravating and mitigating factors in deciding whether to give Cruz the death sentence. Prosecutors will present evidence that the multiple murders were planned and, in legal jargon, especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

MARTIN: So where does that leave the defense? I mean, what are their options at this point in order to avoid the death penalty?

ALLEN: Well, the defense is going to present evidence that Cruz has severe developmental and mental health issues. He has a long history of behavioral problems. And the defense plans to present testimony from psychological experts on what they contend is Cruz's impaired mental condition. The judge also has to decide how much of that testimony will be allowed into the trial. One factor in the defense's favor is that the jury's decision must be unanimous. So if the defense can convince just one juror that Cruz's mental problems are enough of a factor, he might be able to avoid the death penalty.

MARTIN: And how long is the sentencing phase of this trial expected to last?

ALLEN: Well, the judge has told jurors she expects it to run through October. At some point during the trial, jurors will tour the building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where the murders took place. They'll also hear testimony from family members of those killed. Many said they planned to be here for key parts of the trial. They want their day in court. Also, students who survived the rampage will be testifying. And that's expected to be very powerful. They'll also view surveillance video from inside the school, as well as crime scene and autopsy photos of the victims. Some of this is going to be kind of grisly, kind of tough photos. The judge ruled that those images will be able to be viewed by reporters, but they won't be able to make copies or make the images public.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen reporting from Miami. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.