Nickolas Cruz has indicated that he intends to plead guilty!
Nickolas Cruz has indicated that he intends to plead guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder stemming from the 2018 Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His lawyers have been offering to enter such pleas for many months with the concession from the State that they would not seek the death penalty. However, that agreement has not been made and the State has indicated that they will still seek the death penalty for those shootings.
Here is how the death penalty process works in Florida. A jury is impaneled to hear the trial, which is called the guilt face. If the jury finds the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, then you proceed to the penalty phase. The same jury sits for that phase and hears aggravation evidence from the State and mitigation evidence from the Defense. That jury then gives a recommendation to the sentencing Judge as to whether the defendant should receive the death penalty. The recommendation for death needs to be unanimous to be considered. The jury recommendation needs to be given great weight by the sentencing Judge, but it is the Judge who actually imposes either a life sentence or the death penalty.
I’ve been asked why anyone would enter a plea to those cases, yet still face the possibility of the death penalty. There is only one real benefit to avoiding a guilt phase trial where the death penalty is on the table. I’ve actually had one occasion in my career where my client and I decided to have a non-jury trial on a case where the State sought the death penalty. I truly believed that the Judge might be in a better position to listen to my mitigation presentation and possibly give my client (a person charged with killing numerous women in the Central Florida area) a life sentence.
Under Florida law, the jury decides whether or not the client is guilty and then a sentencing proceeding is held. During that sentencing proceeding, information is presented by the State called ‘aggravation evidence’ to suggest that the death penalty is appropriate based upon those aggravating circumstances. The Defense then presents mitigating evidence suggesting that even though the client is guilty, he or she should not be put to death for numerous reasons, including lack of prior criminal record, mental health concerns, that he did well in incarceration to date, and many many other potential mitigating circumstances.
However, the jury hears all of that and then gives a recommendation to the sentencing Judge. Based upon current Florida law, the sentencing Judge must give that recommendation from the jury “great weight”. While the sentencing Judge doesn’t have to follow that recommendation, it must be given due consideration.
By pleading guilty, the benefit to Mr. Cruz is that he avoids the probable recommendation of death by the jury, which then must be given great weight by the sentencing Judge. Based upon the circumstances and the atrocities of this case with the death of 17 students, the probability is that the jury will recommend death and probably do so unanimously. Again, the Judge will have to give that recommendation of death great weight. That consideration is avoided by the entry of the plea.
However, as in my decision to waive a jury in my case, not having a jury trial on the issues of guilt will abbreviate the appellate issues that must be considered in any case of this nature. In effect, the defense team might shave off several years of Mr. Cruz’s appellate life (meaning how long he’s actually alive before being put to death) because no trial issues will exist for appellate review.
On balance, I think it was a good decision, although a very dangerous one, for the defense team and Mr. Cruz to enter guilty pleas and go directly to the sentencing Judge without the otherwise necessary recommendation from the jury.
-Mark M. O’Mara, Esq.