The trial of a man accused of shooting dead 17 students at a Florida high school on Valentine’s Day is still in limbo three years after the fatal incident.
On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz, now 22, is alleged to have gunned down more than a dozen students, as well as injuring 17, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, on the outskirts of Miami.
The case appeared to be a simple one after Cruz’s lawyers claimed that he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
But 1,000 days later it remains on ice after prosecutors refused to budge on seeking the death penalty, before the complex case involving multiple victims and hundreds of witnesses, suffered even more delays following the outbreak of Covid-19 across the world last year.
Harold Pryor, who was elected in November as the county’s new state attorney, told AP: “We are dedicated to ensuring that justice is done and we are working diligently to ensure that the criminal trial begins as soon as possible.”
Parents of the victims and wounded are divided over the need for capital punishment, which is still legal in 28 states in the US.
As of November last year, Florida had 339 prisoners awaiting execution.
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed in the shooting and who is president of the victims’ family group Stand With Parkland, is in favour of it if Cruz is fund guilty.
“The option for a long life was not given to our children and spouses – it was taken that day,” Mr Montalto said.
“Society in general should demand that someone who attacked the most vulnerable, our children, at their school, a place of learning, should be held ultimately accountable. Our families have already paid the ultimate price.”
But Michael Schulman, the father of shooting victim Scott Beigel – a school cross-country coach and geography teacher hailed for protecting students – wrote a newspaper opinion piece in which he said it would be better for everyone if Cruz could plead guilty and be locked away for life.
“Going for the death penalty will not bring our loved ones back to us. It will not make the physical scars of those wounded go away,” Mr Schulman wrote.
“In fact, what it will do is to continue the trauma and not allow the victims to heal and get closure.”
Even with a fully-functioning legal system, many cases like this often take up to ten years to get to trial, with the average in Broward County three and half years, AP reported.
“Even if we didn’t have the pandemic to contend with, getting a death penalty case with this many victims to trial, in Florida, would have taken at least this long,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami.
He added: “The deposition process alone can take years, and then there are the experts and mitigation specialists.”
If Cruz is convicted and sentenced to death, the appeals could potentially stretch for decades.
It’s also possible the case could get reversed and sent back for another sentencing hearing or trial, forcing victims’ families to confront it all again.
Cruz is represented by the Broward County public defender’s office, which has taken depositions so far from about 300 witnesses.
His lawyers declined comment for this story, but in court papers they have insisted there is no intent to delay the case.
Cruz’s defence isn’t focused on his guilt or innocence; it’s more about sparing him from the death penalty, his lawyers have said in court.
One big sticking point is access to Cruz in jail.
His lawyers say that mental health experts they need for the trial must interview him in person, which they will not do as long as the coronavirus remains a threat in the nation’s jails. But officials have raised security concerns about transporting Cruz from jail to meet with defence experts elsewhere.
In recent weeks, there has also been a lengthy battle over prosecutors’ desire to let the jury —whenever the case gets to that point — visit the now-closed school building to see it for themselves.
Defence attorneys say that would be too prejudicial and that ample video and other evidence exists.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer initially hoped to begin the trial in January 2020, which was inevitably delayed when the pandemic shut much of the US, and wider world, down in March.
No trial date has been set.
The next hearing is a status conference, conducted remotely, on Feb. 16.
Since the 2018 massacre AP reported that:
—The sheriff at the time, Scott Israel, was removed by the governor because of the agency’s performance that day.
—The school security officer on duty the day of the shootings, former Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson, faces 11 criminal charges, including child neglect and negligence, for not entering the school building to confront Cruz. He has pleaded not guilty and also awaits trial.
— A commission set up to study the tragedy recommended that teachers be trained and armed in schools, and the state Legislature in 2019 passed a law to that effect.
— Multiple lawsuits have been filed over the shootings and will probably take years to resolve. The coronavirus outbreak has hindered those cases as well, though a judge recently ruled the school system had no duty to warn of the danger posed by Cruz, by then a former student.