The victims of the Parkland shooter will face him in court one more time before he is sentenced to life in prison
The shooter in the 2018 Parkland school massacre will be officially sentenced this week to life in prison – but not until the families of those he killed have another chance to face him in court.
After a months-long trial to decide whether Nikolas Cruz should be sentenced to death, the jury recommended a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the South Florida high school shooting that killed 17 people, spared his life after his defense attorneys argued he was a disturbed, mentally ill person.
Because the jurors recommended life – three voted against a death sentence, which in Florida must be unanimous – Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer must abide by their decision when sentencing Cruz, 24, who pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Scherer is expected to be formally sentenced on Wednesday after loved ones of the victims, many of whom are disappointed and angered by the jury’s sentencing recommendation, were given another chance on Tuesday to take the stand to testify about the impact of his actions.
The end of Cruz’s trial comes just over a year after he pleaded guilty in connection with the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, catalyzing a nationwide call for gun control reform led by teenage shooting survivors and victims’ families. It remains the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school, even as the scourge of gun violence on America’s campuses continues; last week, a teacher and a student were killed in the shooting in St. Louis.
Many Parkland families have already testified over several days this summer as prosecutors closed their case, describing the depth of the loss they have suffered. But those statements, according to the father of 14-year-old victim Jaime Gutenberg, who was among the 14 students killed, did not include everything the families wanted to say because they had to be vetted by lawyers on both sides.
“It wasn’t the extent of how we feel,” Fred Gutenberg told CNN last month after the jury’s decision. “At the sentencing hearing, we will have the opportunity to say whatever we want, including talking about how we feel now about this verdict.”
A second round of victim impact testimony will take place over two days, and survivors of the shooting will also be allowed to speak, the Broward County District Attorney’s Office confirmed to CNN. It is unclear how many of them or the victims’ next of kin will take the stand, but no time limits are imposed and some people may testify via video conference.
Victim impact statements this week do not have to be shown to attorneys in advance, the attorney general’s office said.
“I have a lot more I’d like to say. I have a lot more I’d like to say directly to the killer,” Gutenberg told CNN, adding, “Now we’re going to tell him exactly how we feel about him.”
Because of the guilty plea, Cruz skipped the guilt phase of the trial and instead went straight to the sentencing phase, where prosecutors sought the death penalty while Cruz’s appointed public defenders lobbied for life without parole.
To reach their decisions, jurors listened to prosecutors and defense attorneys argue for several months aggravating and mitigating circumstances – reasons why Cruz should or should not be executed.
Prosecutors pointed to seven aggravating factors, including that the killings were particularly heinous, brutal or cruel, as well as cold, calculated and premeditated, bolstering their case with evidence that the gunman spent months carefully planning the shooting, modifying his AR-15 to improve his shooting and stockpiling ammunition.
Prosecutors also presented Cruz’s Internet search history showing how he searched for information about past mass shootings, as well as comments he left on YouTube sharing his express desire to commit mass murder.
“What Someone Writes,” Chief Prosecutor Michael Satz he said during his closing remarks“What someone says is a window into someone’s soul.”
But defense attorneys said their client should be sentenced to life in prison, pointing to lifelong struggles that began before he was born: His biological mother, they said, used drugs and alcohol while pregnant with Cruz, which caused a series of mental and intellectual deficits resulting from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
Despite his problems — and teachers and school counselors who were concerned about his behavior and poor academic performance — Cruz never received adequate or appropriate intervention, defense attorneys argued. That was in part because of his late adoptive mother who, defense attorney Melissa McNeill said, “never really appreciated” what was wrong with him.
“Sometimes,” McNeill said in her closing remarks, “the people who deserve the least compassion, mercy and remorse are the ones who should get it.”
In reaching its decision, the jury unanimously agreed that the state had proven aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt – and were sufficient to warrant a possible death sentence.
In the end, however, jurors did not unanimously agree that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, resulting in a recommendation for life in prison rather than death.
Three jurors voted against recommending the death penalty, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas he told CNN affiliate WFOR — a decision he disagreed with, noting, “I don’t like how it turned out, but … that’s how the jury system works.”
One of the jurors was a “hard no,” who could not vote for death because “she did not believe, because he was mentally ill, he should get the death penalty,” Thomas said. She was joined by two other jurors.
The woman “did not budge” from her position, juror Melody Vanoy told CNN. “Whether it took us 10 hours or five days” to argue, “she didn’t feel like she was going to be swayed in either direction.”
Vanoy herself voted for life, telling CNN that she was convinced because Cruz had “felt that the system had failed him” several times throughout his life.
Regardless, the outcome did little for families who had hoped Cruz would be sentenced to death and who, in the hours after the jury’s verdict was read, saw their disappointment turn to anger and confusion as they fought with a jury decision.
“I’m disgusted with those jurors,” said Ilan Alhadeff, the father of student victim Alyssa Alhadeff. “I am appalled by the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded and not get the death penalty. What do we have the death penalty for?”
“This shooter did not deserve pity,” Tony Montalto, the father of slain 14-year-old Gina Montalto, said outside the courtroom after the jury’s findings were read.
“Did he show compassion for Gina when he put the gun to her chest and decided to pull the trigger, or any of the other three times he shot her? Was it compassionate?”
Not all relatives of the victims felt this way. Before the end of the trial, Robert Schentrup, brother of victim Carmen Schentruptold CNN he is against the death penalty – in Cruz’s case and all others.
“Logically,” he said, “it doesn’t follow to me that we say, ‘Killing someone is this horrible, heinous, awful, terrible thing, and to prove it, we’re going to do it to someone else.'”
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