FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting trial enters its final phase next week, with prosecutors looking to shift the focus from the defendant’s numerous mental health issues back to the crime he committed on Valentine’s Day 2018.
The state on Tuesday will begin presenting what’s called a rebuttal case. It’s the one chance prosecutors get to answer the defense pleas for sympathy on behalf of confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz.
Don’t expect a replay of the case prosecutors presented from July 18 to Aug. 23. That case relied heavily on a detailed narrative that took jurors through the tragedy as it unfolded, from the planning stages six months before the shooting to the immediate aftermath and the defendant’s successful effort to flee the scene undetected. Jurors were subjected to dozens of crime scene and autopsy photos, culminating in emotionally wrenching testimony from the 17 slain victims’ families and a tour of the undisturbed crime scene at the Parkland campus.
“This isn’t for the state to repeat what they’ve already said,” said Broward defense attorney David Bogenschutz, who is not connected with the case. “Rebuttal is limited by law to what the defense brought up in its case.”
It’s impossible to tell whether the defense presentation resonated with the jury that will be deciding the defendant’s fate. Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill told the jury to consider Cruz’s mental illness to place his crime in context, not to excuse it — to distinguish the atrocity from the person who committed it.
Since the majority of the defense case focused on diagnoses of mental illnesses suffered by Cruz, along with the failed attempts to help him from earliest childhood, the prosecution is likely to focus on the same issues.
“They’re going to call experts who will minimize or neutralize what the defense experts said,” said Chuck Morton, a retired homicide prosecutor who was once chief deputy to lead prosecutor Mike Satz. “His psychological condition certainly had an impact on his control of his emotions, his outbursts and his anger. But did it lead him to kill 17 people? There must be hundreds if not thousands of people with similar mental conditions who did not go on to kill anyone.”
The last round of witnesses will likely make that point, whether they are experts brought in to review the case or people who encountered Cruz in the years before the shooting, said former prosecutor Ken Padowitz, now a defense lawyer. “They have to show the jury why they can’t really rely on what the defense experts told them. Show that they were wrong either in their diagnoses or in the implications of his mental illness.”
It will be up to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to make sure prosecutors Mike Satz, Jeff Marcus and the rest of their team stick to the limits of a rebuttal case. “The testimony ... must relate in some way to a mitigating factor introduced by the defendant,” she wrote in a recent ruling. “This court assumes that the state is keenly aware of these parameters.”
Prosecutors are also barred from using their rebuttal case to shift the trial’s focus back to the victims or compare the severity of the crime with any compassion jurors might feel as a result of the defense case. Those strategies are reserved for closing arguments, scheduled to begin Oct. 10.
Cruz, who turns 24 on Saturday, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. He faces the death penalty for each murder count. The jury must be unanimous to recommend a death sentence. A single dissenting juror would ensure Cruz is sentenced to life in prison.