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The Parkland shooter is about to stand trial

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 will be in court asking a jury to spare his life. Nikolas Cruz has already pleaded guilty to the murders. The jury, which has been seated for the trial's sentencing phase, has two options. It can give Cruz life in prison or the death penalty. NPR's Greg Allen has this report from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was on Valentine's Day in 2018 that Cruz, a troubled former student, killed 14 students and three staff members at the high school in Parkland. He also severely wounded 17 others. He escaped from the scene by dropping his AR-15-style rifle and blending in with the crowd of students. He was captured shortly afterwards by police a few miles from the school. Tony Montalto’s daughter Gina was one of the students 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 Cruz is given the death penalty. Prosecutors will present evidence that the multiple murders were planned and, in legal jargon, especially heinous, atrocious or cruel. The defense will present evidence that Cruz has severe developmental and mental health issues. The judge still has to decide how much of that testimony will be allowed into the trial. Phil Reizenstein is a defense attorney who's had many death penalty cases, but he's not involved in this trial. He says looming over these proceedings is the likelihood that should Cruz receive the death penalty, there will be an appeal.

PHIL REIZENSTEIN: I think you're going to see a judge be very open to much of what the defense wants to present so that the appellate court can look at this and say, hey, you did everything you wanted to do. You got it all out there. The jurors heard what you wanted them to hear, and they made their decision. And we're not going to disturb it.

ALLEN: In pretrial motions, Judge Elizabeth Scherer has ruled that jurors will at some point tour the building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the murders took place. Jurors will hear testimony from family members of those killed and from students who survived the rampage. They'll also view surveillance video from inside the school, as well as crime scene and autopsy photos of the victims. Defense attorneys say it's one of the toughest and most horrific death penalty cases they've ever seen in Florida. But Stephen Harper, a longtime public defender who's not involved in the trial, says a jury decision has to be unanimous so a life sentence is possible.

STEPHEN HARPER: This case comes down to whether one - at least one juror will have empathy for the defendant's mental illness and mental capacities and mental problems. And if one juror can do that, then he will get life.

ALLEN: It took three months of questioning by the judge, prosecutors and defense to select a 12-member jury and 10 alternates. The judge has told them she expects the trial to run through October. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

MARTIN: We'll have more from Greg Allen as the sentencing gets underway, so we invite you to tune into NPR for more coverage on this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.