A trial opens on Monday July 18 in Florida to set the sentence for the author of one of the worst school killings in the United States, that of Parkland High School, which killed seventeen people in 2018 Reflecting the immense emotion aroused by this tragedy, it took almost three months to select twelve jurors, seven men and five women, deemed sufficiently impartial to decide the fate of Nikolas Cruz, 23 years old.

On February 14, 2018, he sowed fear in Parkland, a small town north of Miami, by opening fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, from which he had been expelled a year earlier. In October, he pleaded guilty to the seventeen murders committed that day, those of fourteen students and three adults, and seventeen attempted murders – one for each injured. His trial is aimed solely at determining whether he deserves the death penalty as prosecutors demand, or life in prison. If only one juror opposes it, Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to an irreducible sentence of life imprisonment.

This trial, which should last several months, has a unique character as it is rare in the United States for the perpetrators of such carnage to survive their attack. It comes as the country is reeling from a series of bloody shootings at an elementary school (twenty-one dead, including nineteen children, in Texas), a supermarket (ten dead, all African-Americans, in the New York State) and a National Day parade (seven dead, in Illinois). As in Parkland, these bloodbaths were all committed by very young men armed with assault rifles.

Complaint against the federal police

The hearings promise to be difficult, with testimonies from relatives of the victims and survivors, as well as the broadcast of videos recorded by witnesses to the tragedy. Nikolas Cruz’s lawyers should plead that their client is mentally ill and recall that he has apologized. “I’m so sorry for what I did, I bear the brunt of it every day,” he said in October.

The prosecution should insist on the premeditated nature of the crime, relying on a video recorded before the act. “Let my massacre begin today. Let all the frightened children run and hide,” he said. “I am nobody, my life is nothing and has no meaning,” he added, announcing that he wanted to go to his old school in an Uber vehicle armed with an AR-15 rifle.

Despite his psychiatric history and reports of his dangerousness, Nikolas Cruz had indeed been able to legally buy this rifle, a civilian version of assault rifles. After the tragedy, his victims had filed a complaint against the federal police, accused of not having followed these “pipes”. The Justice Department agreed in March to pay them $127.5 million to end the lawsuits.

24,000 gun deaths since the start of the year

The Parkland attack was the worst school massacre in the United States since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, in which twenty-six people were killed. It had sparked a record mobilization led by several young survivors and the parents of victims. On March 24, 2018, the March for Our Lives brought together approximately 1.5 million people across the country, the largest national demonstration for better control of firearms in the entire history of the United States.

Despite the protesters’ hopes, no legislative reform has been passed in Congress, and gun sales have continued to increase in recent years in the United States, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Guns have claimed more than 24,000 lives, including 13,000 suicides, since the start of the year, according to the Gun Violence Archive website. The recent tragedies were followed by the adoption of a modest federal law, which mainly plans to strengthen the funds allocated to school safety and mental health.