Should the Parkland shooter die?
Nikolas Cruz, 23, is guilty of murdering 17 people and injuring others with an AR-15 rifle at his former high school in Parkland, Florida in February 2018. No one, including Florida prosecutors, neither Cruz’s defense team, nor Cruz himself, who pleaded guilty to all charges against him, disputes these facts. Rather, Cruz recapped his guilt on every count of murder and attempted murder in court last October before apologizing for his crimes. “I’m so sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day,” he said, “and if I had a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others.”
Cruz’s regrets, expressed in front of the families of the victims gathered in the courtroom, did little to appease the grief and rage of the survivors. The father of a 14-year-old girl who was murdered by Cruz called the prisoner’s repentance “ridiculous” during an interview with NPR. Listening to prosecutors describe in detail how her child was murdered was heartbreaking. “There’s no way to hear how many times your daughter has been shot by a cold, calculating killer who’s easy to take,” he said. “It’s…it was a very disturbing day.”
This might have been one of the last public recaps of the Valentine’s Day murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz had pleaded guilty; his defense team had agreed to accept life without the possibility of parole. There was no need for a trial. But prosecutors and some (but not all) survivors and families of survivors felt that letting Cruz die the slow, lonely deaths men die in prison, amid endemic disease and sexual violence, would be depriving of justice and that he had to be executed instead. Thus, Cruz’s death sentence trial began on July 18.
No sanction imposed on Earth can answer the suffering of a parent mourning his lost little one. No punishment can fill the painful silence where the daily clamor of children once reigned, nor stir the brutal immobility they leave behind. Even if we were to price one human life against another, capital punishment cannot do justice to multiple murder victims, nor to injured survivors. If a man can kill one person and receive exactly the same punishment as a murderer who slaughtered more than a dozen, in what sense does execution represent a proportionate punishment? That is: When, as I expect, the Florida jury decides to put Cruz to death, it will not be justice even by the logic inherent in the death penalty itself. Nonetheless, the question of whether the state can kill Cruz is the only one the Florida trial seeks to resolve.
To kill Cruz, prosecutors will have to convince the jury that the aggravating circumstances in his case (the number of victims, the excruciating cruelty of the murders and the “cold, calculated and premeditated manner” of the attack) outweigh all the circumstances. mitigating. (the possibility of developmental problems related to exposure to drugs and alcohol in utero, a difficult upbringing, his history of self-harm and violence towards others, and diagnoses of depression and autism). But winning death sentences is less about meeting specific legal criteria and more about getting the jury to hate the defendant. As with any persuasive campaign, graphic material is essential.
Since the start of Cruz’s trial, prosecutors have released cellphone videos taken by students during the massacre; showed security camera footage of the killings; asked survivors to strip naked and display their scars, like holy martyrs, in open court; and collected testimonies from witnesses and victims that shocked survivors and their families. During cellphone clip screening, parent of murdered girl screams for someone to stop video; the ushers silenced him.
Every jury trial is a show trial, and prosecutors are writers or directors, not performers. They draw memories and emotions from their witnesses to illustrate the extent of the killer’s hurt, but the brutal blows have yet to be sketched out by the grieving survivors themselves.
The trial of a school shooter is also a production, in that the process generates new material to build the legend of the killer. School shooters are so notoriously interested in commemorating their killings and the events leading up to them that public safety campaigns and criminology researchers now widely recommend that reporters not name them in coverage at all. And yet, Cruz’s trial packs and publicizes its own basement tapes — the cellphone videos and social media posts that presaged his transformation into a murderer. They were already public, but are now etched even more deeply into the hideous canon of infamous shooters. The prosecution’s decision to illustrate Cruz’s massacre moment by moment, using all available footage, will provide many more pals for the internet’s darkest waters. This phenomenon – the mass shooting as bildungsroman, the preservation and celebration of the killer’s memories in its niche, the memetic subculture – is both the primary focus of school shootings and the inspiration for attacks. of copiers. This is not a possible interpretation of events, but a question of fact.
The fact that Cruz pleaded guilty and attempted to waive the public spectacle of a trial, but was denied the attempt in the name of capital punishment, is therefore particularly troubling. Darkness would be a kind of surrender, as part of his particular crime.
Cruz’s defense team did not argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity (although, in my view, the young man’s story demonstrates very starkly that he never supported a significant period of rational behavior). This nuance will now be lost on many during his sentencing trial, when his defense team will have to elucidate after all his psychological and emotional difficulties.
Prosecutors, for their part, will have to do something philosophically interesting: prove that Cruz is – himself, in his own person, unresponsive to madness and unconstrained by outside forces –entirely guilty of his crimes. It cannot be that he is only, say, somewhat Wrong; it cannot be that he was grossly distorted by his moment in history and weakened by experiences or conditions that cannibalized what little courage he may have had. If that were the case, the jury should consider the possibility that Cruz was not remarkably evil, but instead is part of an ever-growing line of dangerously troubled young men with many bad role models and easy access to high-capacity guns and ammunition. What the relationship between these two realities is – whether Cruz deserves to live or die – is something I can barely fathom and only heaven knows. And yet, a jury of ordinary Floridians is going to have to find out.
The rest of us – an American public regularly exposed to incomprehensibly horrifying news – will be left by this protracted and dramatically staged trial with an even greater catalog of the dying cries of slaughtered children. One mass shooting turns into another. The other night, standing in the warmth of a neighbor’s garden, I mentioned that I was writing something – something about murder, someone who was killed or killed someone or who is on about to be killed – and my confused interlocutor begged my forgiveness: Is it Buffalo, or Uvalde, or the 4th of July? It’s Parkland, I said – the shooting in Florida some time ago. It’s in the news again because they want to run it.
She looked at me, puzzled, and I was suddenly struck by the heaviness of the news, amidst the jumble of sweet honeysuckles and blooming summer hydrangeas. I let the subject sink, sorry for saying anything. Still, for the briefest of seconds, I wondered if I should volunteer to say that I definitely wasn’t defending him. And yet, I believe he should have a defense. And not only that: his defense should succeed, not because what he did is defensible, but because the state decided to destroy the only thing worth defending in man.