Monday 21 May 2018

Prosecutors demand death sentence for Florida school shooting suspect

The teenager’s lawyers have said he would plead guilty if the death penalty was not pursued.

Nikolas Cruz in court via video conference from jail for his first appearance after the shooting (Broward County Court/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Nikolas Cruz in court via video conference from jail for his first appearance after the shooting (Broward County Court/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

By Curt Anderson, Associated Press

Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the fatal shooting of 17 people at a Florida school.

The office of Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz filed the formal notice on Tuesday.

Cruz, 19, is scheduled for formal arraignment on Wednesday on a 34-count indictment, including 17 first-degree murder charges.

His lawyers have said he would plead guilty if the death penalty was not pursued in the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The action by prosecutors on Tuesday does not necessarily mean a plea deal will not be reached.

The only other penalty option for Cruz is life in prison with no possibility of parole.

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Student Tanner McPherson, 10, pauses for a moment of silence during a student protest in the Studio City section of Los Angeles (Richard Vogel/AP)

Ira Jaffe, whose son and daughter survived the shooting, said he respects the wishes of the 17 families whose children were killed and that time is better spent finding solutions to the problem of mass school shootings.

“Live forever in jail or die – I don’t care,” Mr Jaffe said in an email. “Cruz will rot in hell no matter when it is that he arrives there.”

Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, has said there were so many warning signs that Cruz was mentally unstable and potentially violent, and that the death penalty might be going too far. Mr Finkelstein said Cruz would plead guilty if prosecutors opt not to seek the death penalty.

“Because that’s what this case is about. Not, did he do it? Not, should he go free? Should he live or should he die?” Mr Finkelstein told the Associated Press.

In an email on Tuesday, Mr Finkelstein said Cruz is “immediately ready” to plead guilty in return for 34 consecutive life sentences.

“If not allowed to do that tomorrow (at the hearing), out of respect for the victims’ families we will stand mute to the charges at the arraignment. We are not saying he is not guilty but we can’t plead guilty while death is still on the table,” Mr Finkelstein said.

If Cruz does not enter a plea, a not guilty plea will likely be entered on his behalf by Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to keep the legal process moving along, his attorneys have said.

Meanwhile, a student who is credited with saving the lives of 20 students by attempting to close and lock a classroom door during the attack is improving at a hospital. Anthony Borges, 15, was shot five times. Weeks after being shot, he fell critically ill of an intestinal infection. After surgery, his condition was upgraded to fair, his attorney and the hospital said.

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Florida Governor Rick Scott signs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act (Mark Wallheiser/AP)

The boy’s intestinal area has been sealed off and he is breathing on his own after being taken off a ventilator, family attorney Alex Arreaza said.

Anthony’s family has filed notice that they will sue Florida authorities to seek money to cover the cost of his recovery.

Meanwhile, Florida voters may get a chance to decide whether or not they want to approve new gun control restrictions.

While Governor Rick Scott just signed a new school safety and gun bill into law, the state’s Constitution Revision Commission may vote to place gun restrictions on this year’s ballot. The commission, a special panel that meets every 20 years, has the power to ask voters to approve changes to the state’s constitution.

Tony Montalto, whose daughter was one of the 17 killed at Stoneman Douglas, asked commissioners at a Tuesday public hearing to put the proposals before voters. He said they need to act because the National Rifle Association has filed a lawsuit against the new law approved by the Legislature.

“You can help defeat this challenge,” Mr Montalto told commissioners.

The commission, which is expected to take a final vote on its proposals over the next few weeks, will consider raising the age of weapon purchases to 21, banning bump stocks, a ban on types of semi-automatic rifles, and extending the waiting period for gun purchases.

Shortly before the commission hearing in St Petersburg, students from Tampa Bay area schools spoke passionately in favour of additional gun regulations, as did the father of a student who attends Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“Our kids are not asking to do away with the 2nd Amendment. They’re not asking to take away people’s guns or their ability to hunt,” said John Willis. “What they’re saying is, that these weapons of mass destruction that do nothing but tear human beings apart in an unbelievable way, do not belong in civilian hands.”

Press Association

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