Joe Henderson: No matter what, Nikolas Cruz will never leave prison alive

In the penalty phase for the Parkland murderer, jurors have only two choices: life in prison with no parole, or death.

In the punishment phase of Parkland murderer Nikolas Cruz, jury selection began Monday in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom and thus returns the horror of Valentine’s Day in 2018 — as if it ever really went away for the victims’ families.

A lot of them want to see Cruz die. I can’t blame them. This will be Florida’s highest-profile capital punishment case since Ted Bundy, exposing again the depths to which evil can fall in human beings.

Well, if we’re going to have the death penalty, it was certainly made for cases like this. Cruz methodically shot 17 students and staff members to death on that awful day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s easy to say the death penalty is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society. This is not a time for that, though, because I can’t walk in the family members’ shoes. If someone murdered a member of my family the way Cruz did to the Parkland victims, I also might want that person dead.

Our legal system doesn’t work that way though, so this case again starts the moral wrestling match between our consciences and the death penalty.

Jury members have only two options in this case: life in prison with no parole, or death. The argument that Florida leads the nation in death penalty convictions overturned doesn’t apply in this case either.

When Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges in October, he had hoped prosecutors would take the death penalty off the table. They did not, but Cruz admitted his guilt anyway.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer told him, “You will not come out (of prison) until you are no longer alive.”

Cruz said he understood.

The judge added, “Do you understand that if you’re on death row waiting to be sentenced, you can’t say, ‘You know what? That wasn’t a good strategy. Maybe I should have gone to trial and required the state to prove it.’ It will be too late at that time. Do you understand?”

Cruz said he understood.

Historically, Florida is one of the most aggressive states in administering the death penalty, but not so much lately. Florida hasn’t executed anyone since Aug. 22, 2019, when serial killer Gary Ray Bowles met the ultimate punishment for murdering six men after 22 years on death row.

It also seems rather random who draws the short straw among the condemned.

Florida has 313 people, including three women, on death row. Many have waited in their 6-by-9 by 9.5-foot high cells for decades. If the jury decides Cruz should die, it might be 20 years or more until that happens.

Before we get there, though, they have to seat a jury. They may interview as many as 1,500 prospective jurors before choosing the 12 people (and eight alternates). The challenge is trying to find enough people who promise they can judge this case on just the facts.

Good luck with that.

Anyone who admits they oppose the death penalty won’t get on the jury. Those who say they can be impartial will have to prove that by completing a rigorous questionnaire. And then, they must be willing to serve on a case that could run into September.

Defense attorneys will argue that Cruz was a damaged individual driven by demons he couldn’t control. Prosecutors will paint him as a cold-blooded, malevolent, intentional murderer.

It’s inappropriate now to speculate which side jurors will believe. The only certain outcome in this stage of the Parkland horror is that Nikolas Cruz, as the judge said, will not come out of prison until he is no longer alive.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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