The case for life for Nikolas Cruz | Editorial
When you consider the cold-blooded way in which he massacred 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — shooting some of them again and again, even once they were down — it’s hard not to look at Nikolas Cruz and wish Florida still had Old Sparky so we could say: Fry him.
When you hear about the 17 people who were shot but survived, and those who witnessed hell on earth while hiding for their lives, it makes you think lethal injection is too good for Cruz.
And when you imagine the anguish suffered by so many families who will never get to talk to their loved one again, never get to sit across from them at dinner, never get to dance at their child’s wedding, you can understand why State Attorney Mike Satz this week announced his intention to seek the death penalty for Cruz.
Yet for their sake, and that of our community, we encourage the injured and the victims’ families to seriously consider the offer on the table from Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. That is, in return for taking the death penalty off the table, let Cruz plead guilty and be sentenced to 34 life terms with no possibility of parole.
We don’t pretend to grasp the depth of despair facing those who were shot and those who’ve lost a son or daughter, a sister or brother, a grandson or granddaughter, a nephew or niece, and with them, the light in their lives. We grieve with and for them. And it’s terrible they now find themselves in the position of having to help weigh whether someone else should live or die.
But as they wonder how they’ll ever get through tomorrow, the legal process has gotten underway. And unless Satz hears a unified voice from the victims — the same kind of unified voice they mustered in Tallahassee to push passage of an imperfect bill that brought about the state’s first gun restrictions in decades — it’s our opinion the state attorney will wholeheartedly pursue the death penalty, as he regularly does, and “let the jury decide.”
THE PROSECUTOR’S POSITION
Satz had no choice, really, but to file that notice. If prosecutors are considering the death penalty, state law requires them to say so within 45 days of a defendant’s arraignment. And as Satz said a week after the shooting: “This certainly is the type of case the death penalty was designed for. This was a highly calculated and premeditated murder of 17 people and the attempted murder of everyone in that school.”
Politically speaking, Satz had to do it. When the state attorney in Orange County refused to seek the death penalty for someone who killed an Orlando police officer, Gov. Rick Scott removed her from the high-profile case because “she will not fight for justice.”
More than that, Satz is an old-school prosecutor, first elected in 1976, who not infrequently pursues the death penalty, often to force plea deals. How could his office maintain such an approach if he failed to pursue death for one of the nation’s 10 worst mass murders?
Most importantly, Satz, who isn’t speaking publicly about the case, is there to prosecute the person who shot 17 people and killed another 17 families’ loved ones. It would be wrong for him not to entertain the death penalty, given the carnage, the ruthlessness, the premeditation, the confession, the hurt and the pain. Plus, the survivors and victims’ families need time to sort out what they want.
THE PUBLIC DEFENDER’S VIEW
On that, you will get no argument from Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, at least until a court determines whether his inherited assets disqualify him from being represented by a taxpayer-supported lawyer.
Finkelstein pulls no punches on Cruz. He says his client is guilty of “the worst criminal act that has ever occurred in Broward County. What 9/11 was to America, this will be to Broward. Nothing comes close.”
Within days of the massacre, Finkelstein surprised the nation by announcing his client would plead guilty in return for taking the death penalty off the table.
“You’re never going to hear us say he’s not guilty,” Finkelstein told us. “But we can’t walk in and say “guilty,” because the next thing you know, he’s executed. It would be malpractice to plead guilty. But we’re not going to insult people’s intelligence and say he’s not guilty.”
Finkelstein wants to be respectful of the families. That’s why you don’t see anyone from his office on television. “I do not want to be in the living rooms of these victims’ families. The last thing they want is to hear from the lawyer representing the person who killed their child.”
The case has rocked the public defender’s office, too. “There’s so much pain here, I can’t get through it without crying. I have conversations with my lawyers. We’re crying. We’re shaking. Everybody is shaken. This is an awful thing. … When I go home every night and sit in my TV room with my wife, and my daughter calls, there’s a hole in my soul because I know they’re not getting that phone call.”
THE OFFER ON THE TABLE
At the same time, Finkelstein hopes the families will start a conversation about the best path forward, not for Cruz, but for themselves.
“What we’re trying to do is walk up to a table backwards, gently, and so quietly put an idea on the table, that if it’s acceptable to those who are hurting, here’s the idea.”
The idea is to have Cruz, 19, plead guilty, in return for life in prison without parole. The families would get their day in court at the sentencing hearing. They’d get to tell him what he’s done to them and what they think of him. After that, he’d be sent to a maximum security prison in north Florida, where he would live out his life in a concrete snake pit filled with rapists, robbers and murderers.
“It will be a miserable experience,” Finkelstein says. “There’s a pecking order in jail society and those on the lower end of the pecking order get beaten and raped. And killing children is on the low end of the pecking order. This will be very hard time. Some would say that it would be more merciful to kill him.”
The other path would have Satz take the case to court and let the jury decide about death. In that event, the defense would start hiring experts, taking depositions and detailing the multi-system failure of government to respond to the red flags about Cruz being a danger to himself and others.
“He’s a severely broken human. He’s not right. He’s not insane. He’s not incompetent. But there’s mental health stuff going on there, make no mistake about it,” Finkelstein says. “The kid doesn’t look up. He looks shell-shocked, totally depressed. I can’t imagine what’s going on inside his head at this point.”
WHAT TO EXPECT AT TRIAL
It likely would take three years to get to trial, the first step in a journey that would cost many millions of dollars. Satz’s office has requested an extra $5 million to prosecute the case, Finkelstein says. His office has requested a couple of million dollars.
Finkelstein fears the trial would tear our community apart. Rather than working together to ensure this never happens again, he expects finger-pointing to heighten between the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Broward County Public Schools, Henderson Behavioral Health and the state and federal governments.
After months of emotional testimony and horrific images, he says the jury would find Cruz guilty. But the defense team would have planted seeds in the jurors’ minds that although their client is responsible for his acts, the state lacks clean hands to kill him, having ignored every opportunity to help him.
Because Florida’s new death penalty law requires the jury’s decision to be unanimous, it would take only one of 12 jurors to upend the reason for the three-year journey. That’s what happened in Aurora, Colorado, after a jury unanimously found James Holmes guilty of killing 12 people in a movie theater. Later, three of those same jurors couldn’t vote for death. “He knew right from wrong,” one juror told the Denver Post. “It’s the fact that mental illness is there.”
APPEALS PROCESS CAN TAKE DECADES
Even if the jury unanimously votes for death, Finkelstein says the appeals process could last 15 or more years. “This case will not be put to bed until someone who’s not born yet graduates from Stoneman Douglas High School.”
“What I’ve seen in 40 years, when families do walk this path, they become hollow bodies, hollow eyes, shuffling in and out of court, linked to the very person who destroyed their lives. When they walk this path, it has not been my experience that closure is at the end of it.
“Whether that’s better for the victims’ families, or the other path, to put him away for ever and ever, and let them begin to pick up the pieces and build some kind of future. It’s a decision that’s very heavy, that only the victims’ families can answer.”
After the Aurora trial, a grandfather spoke for those who wanted the death penalty. He said the imposition of a life sentence made the family’s “gaping wound” even worse. “The thought that this monster gets to have visitation with his parents and gets to receive mail and pictures … is hard to accept.”
Cruz is getting mail, too, including fan letters from teenage girls. “He’s famous,” Finkelstein says. “They want to be connected to him. They’re star-struck. I’m ready to call the parents and say, ‘You need to know what your daughters are doing.’”
“There’s an evil in this case and the longer we keep it alive, the more it grows,” he adds. “The quicker we kill this case, the better for all of us.”
THE EXPERIENCE OF OTHERS
Victims’ families typically split on the death sentence, says Rob Denham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“But studies suggest the process is not good for the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of the victims’ families,” he said. “It delays the ability to heal. It delays the ability to move forward. And it provides a false promise of closure for many.”
Sitting through years of court hearings has been described as pulling a scab off a wound, Denham says. “But it’s much more insidious than that. It’s not like you start to bleed a little. It’s like the worst day of your life comes back over and over.
“What starts closure is the end of the legal process. Whether the end of the legal process is life without parole, and no appeals thereafter, or the death penalty, with decades of appeals, will determine when that closure starts.”
Denham pointed us to The Forgiveness Project, which tries to help people who’ve lost a loved one to violence, and to Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
“For many months after the bombing I could have killed Timothy McVeigh myself,” Welch says on the website. “Temporary insanity is real, and I have lived it. You can’t think of enough adjectives to describe the rage, revenge, and hate I felt. But after time, I was able to examine my conscience, and I realized that if McVeigh is put to death, it won’t help me in the healing process. People talk about executions bringing closure. But how can there be closure when my little girl is never coming back. I finally realized that the death penalty is all about revenge and hate, and revenge and hate are why Julie Marie and 167 others are dead.”
It’s easy to understand why any one of the Parkland families would want the worst for Nikolas Cruz. If you were in their shoes, you’d probably want to kill the monster, too. And if that is what they decide, we must honor their decision.
Actually, the decision is Satz’s to make, but should the families largely decide to accept the offer on the table, he’d be hard pressed to ignore their wishes.
Before following the prosecutor’s lead, we encourage the survivors and victims’ families to carefully study the road ahead and decide together what they want, just as they did before going to Tallahassee.
Is it worth a 20-year journey to execute Cruz? Families who’ve gone before them have said otherwise. Even when the execution finally happens, some have said it didn’t have the effect they’d hoped.
Only the injured and victims’ families know what’s ultimately right for them. And the answer may take some time. But speaking as people who care, we suspect the better course is to send Cruz to prison for life and throw away the key.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.