Should the Parkland Shooter Die?

A Florida jury will have to render a judgment only heaven can make.

A close up image of Cruz's face
Reuters / The Atlantic

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Nikolas Cruz, 23, is guilty of murdering 17 people and injuring more with an AR-15 rifle at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. No one—not Florida prosecutors, not Cruz’s defense team, not Cruz himself, who pleaded guilty to all charges levied against him—disputes those facts. On the contrary, Cruz recapitulated his guilt in each count of murder and attempted murder in court last October before issuing an apology for his crimes. “I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day,” he said, “and if I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others.”

Cruz’s regrets, issued before the families of victims gathered in the courtroom, did little to ease survivors’ grief and rage. The father of a 14-year-old girl murdered by Cruz dismissed the prisoner’s repentance as “ridiculous” during an interview with NPR. Listening to prosecutors describe in detail how his child had been murdered was wrenching. “There is no way to hear about how many times your daughter was shot by a cold and calculating killer that is easy to take,” he said. “It’s … it was a very disturbing day.”

It could’ve been among the last public recapitulations 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 whatsoever. But prosecutors and some (though by no means all) survivors and survivors’ families felt that leaving Cruz to die the slow and lonely deaths that men die in prison, amid rampant disease and sexual violence, would come up short of justice and that he had to be executed instead. And so Cruz’s death-penalty sentencing trial began on July 18.

No penalty levied on Earth can answer the suffering of a parent wailing for her lost young. No punishment can fill the aching silence where the daily clamor of children used to be, or stir the brutal stillness they leave behind. Even if we were to set the price of one human life at another, capital punishment can’t deliver justice for multiple murder victims—nor for the wounded survivors. If a man can kill a single person and receive the exact same punishment as a murderer who massacred more than a dozen, in what sense does execution represent a proportional sentence? This is to say: When, as I expect, the jury in Florida decides to put Cruz to death, it will not be justice even by the logic inherent to the death penalty itself. Nevertheless, the question of whether the state may kill Cruz is the only one that the trial in Florida seeks to resolve.

To kill Cruz, prosecutors will have to convince the jury that the aggravating factors in his case (the number of casualties, the atrocious cruelty of the killings, and the “cold, calculated, and premeditated manner” of the attack) outweigh any mitigating factors (the possibility of developmental problems related to drug and alcohol exposure in utero, a troubled upbringing, his history of self-harm and violence against others, and diagnoses of depression and autism). But winning death sentences is less about meeting any specific legal criteria than it is about getting the jury to hate the defendant. As with any persuasion campaign, graphic material is key.

Since Cruz’s sentencing trial began, prosecutors have played cellphone videos shot by students during the massacre; shown security-camera footage of the murders; asked survivors to undress and display their scars, like holy martyrs, in open court; and taken testimony from witnesses and victims that has left survivors and their families distraught. During the screening of one cellphone clip, a relative of a murdered girl shouted for someone to stop the video; bailiffs hushed her.

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 scale of the killer’s evil, but the brute strokes must still 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 out the killer’s legend. School shooters are so notoriously interested in memorializing their murders and the events leading up to them that public-safety campaigns and criminology researchers now widely recommend that journalists not name them in coverage at all. And yet, Cruz’s trial is effectively packaging and advertising his very own basement tapes—the cellphone videos and social-media posts that presaged his transformation into a murderer. They were public already, but are now even more deeply engraved in the hideous canon of infamous shooters. The prosecution’s decision to illustrate Cruz’s slaughter moment by moment, using all available footage, will supply plenty more chum for the internet’s darkest waters. This phenomenon—the mass shooting as bildungsroman, the preservation and celebration of the killer’s memoirs in his niche, memetic subculture—is both the chief goal of school shootings and the inspiration for copycat attacks. This isn’t a possible interpretation of events, but a matter of fact.

That Cruz pleaded guilty and attempted to forgo the public spectacle of a trial, but was denied the attempt for the sake of capital punishment, is thus especially troubling. Obscurity would be a kind of surrender, in the context of his particular crime.

Cruz’s defense team did not argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity (though, to my mind, the young man’s history very bluntly demonstrates that he’s never sustained a significant period of rational behavior). That nuance will now be lost to many during his sentencing trial, when his defense team must elucidate after all his psychological and emotional difficulties.

The prosecutors, for their part, will have to do something philosophically interesting: prove that Cruz is—himself, in his own person, unmoved by madness and uncoerced by external forces—entirely culpable for his crimes. It cannot be that he is only, say, somewhat evil; it cannot be that he was largely warped by his moment in history and weakened by experiences or conditions that cannibalized what little fortitude he may have had. If that were the case, the jury would have to entertain the possibility that Cruz isn’t remarkably evil, but is rather one in an ever-lengthening lineage of dangerously troubled young men with plenty of bad role models and easy access to high-capacity rifles and ammunition. What the relationship between those two realities is—whether Cruz deserves to live or die—is something I can scarcely comprehend and suspect only heaven knows. And yet, a jury of everyday Floridians is going to have to figure it out.

The rest of us—an American public regularly exposed to incomprehensibly horrific news—will be left by this prolonged, dramatically staged trial with a still-greater catalog of the dying cries of gunned-down children. One mass shooting bleeds into another. Standing in the heat of a neighbor’s garden the other evening, I mentioned that I was writing something—something about killing, someone who was killed or killed someone or is about to be killed—and my addled interlocutor begged pardon: Is this Buffalo, or Uvalde, or the Fourth of July? This is Parkland, I clarified—the Florida shooting from a while back. It’s in the news again because they want to execute him.

She looked at me, bewildered, and I was suddenly struck by how heavy the news felt to bear, amid the welter of sweet honeysuckle and florid summer hydrangeas. I let the subject sink, sorry to have said anything. Still, for the shortest of seconds, I wondered if I should volunteer that I certainly wasn’t defending him. And yet I do believe he ought to have a defense. And not just that: His defense ought to succeed—not because what he did is defensible, but because the state set out to destroy the only thing about the man worth defending at all.