The Parkland school shooter has avoided the death penalty after a jury recommended he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the February 2018 massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – a move that left some of the victims’ loved ones disappointed and angry.
The jury’s recommendation Thursday, coming after a monthslong trial to decide Nikolas Cruz’s punishment, is not an official sentence; Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer still is expected to issue the gunman’s formal sentence on November 1. Under Florida law, however, she cannot depart from the jury’s recommendation of life.
Families of the gunman’s victims bowed or shook their heads as the verdict forms for each of the 17 people he killed were read in court Thursday morning. The jury found the aggravating factors presented by state prosecutors did not outweigh the mitigating circumstances – aspects of Cruz’s life and upbringing his defense attorneys said warranted only a life sentence.
None of the jurors looked in the direction of the victims’ families as their verdicts were read, but instead looked down or straight ahead. Cruz – flanked by his attorneys, wearing a blue and gray sweater over a collared shirt and eyeglasses – sat expressionless, looking down at the table in front of him.
The 14 slain students were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, also were killed – each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.
Tony Montalto, the father of 14-year-old victim Gina, called the jury’s recommendation a “gut punch” for the victims’ families, lamenting that “the monster that killed them gets to live to see another day.”
“This shooter did not deserve compassion,” he said outside the courtroom, after the jury’s findings were read. “Did he show the compassion to Gina when he put the weapon against her chest and chose to pull that trigger, or any of the other three times that he shot her? Was that compassionate?”
Cruz, now 24, pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 14 students and three school staff members were killed, and 17 others were injured. Because Cruz pleaded guilty to all counts, the trial phase was skipped and the court went directly to the sentencing phase.
Prosecutors had asked the jury to sentence the gunman to death, arguing Cruz’s decision to carry out the shooting was not only especially heinous or cruel, but premeditated and calculated and not, as the defense contended, related to any neurological or intellectual deficits.
To illustrate their point, prosecutors detailed Cruz’s thorough planning for the shooting, as well as comments he made online expressing his desire to commit a mass killing.
In their case, the shooter’s defense attorneys said Cruz had neurodevelopmental disorders stemming from prenatal alcohol exposure, and presented evidence and witnesses claiming his birth mother had used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him. Cruz’s adoptive mother was not open about this with health professionals or educators, preventing him from receiving the appropriate interventions, the defense claimed.
‘This jury failed our families’
Of the 12 jurors, three voted against the death penalty, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR, saying, “I don’t like how it turned out but it’s that’s how the jury system works.”
“There was one with a hard ‘no,’ she couldn’t do it, and there was another two that ended up voting the same way,” said Thomas.
The woman who was a hard no “didn’t believe because he was mentally ill he should get the death penalty,” Thomas said.
The deliberations became “tense,” a juror wrote in a handwritten letter addressed to Judge Scherer. The juror, who voted against the death penalty for Cruz, wrote to the judge that “some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned that I would vote for life.”
In the letter, the juror also denied allegations that she made up her mind to vote for life in prison before the trial began, saying she heard other jurors had made such accusations about her.
Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the shooting, said that for a juror to decide to recommend a life sentence, they “either didn’t understand the facts in this case, or [were] dishonest with themselves when they signed up to become a juror and would never have voted for the death penalty.”
“You cannot look at the facts of this case, look at the cruel and inhumane way the 17 victims were treated – that he went back and shot again those that were already down on the ground,” and conclude otherwise, Petty said.
The parents of Alyssa Alhadeff, another 14-year-old victim, said they were disgusted by the verdict.
“I’m disgusted with those jurors,” Alyssa’s father, Ilan Alhadeff, said. “I’m disgusted with 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?”
Linda Beigel Schulman, the mother of geography teacher Scott Beigel, echoed that question, telling reporters, “If this was not the most perfect death penalty case, then why do we have the death penalty at all?”
She, like many of the families who addressed reporters, commended prosecutors for their work, saying they perfectly executed the state’s arguments against the gunman.
“Justice was not served today,” her husband, Michael Schulman, said.
The jury’s recommendation robbed the victims’ families of justice, the father of 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg told reporters, saying it could make another mass shooting “more likely.”
“We are all in this position now of doing the work that we do around this country to keep this from happening to another family,” Fred Guttenberg said after court. “This decision today only makes it more likely that the next mass shooting will be attempted.”
“This jury failed our families today,” Guttenberg said.
The widow of 49-year-old Christopher Hixon, who was the school’s athletic director, said the jury’s decision indicated the gunman’s “life meant more than the 17 that were murdered” and the rest of the community who remain “terrorized and traumatized.”
Debra Hixon also rejected the defense’s arguments about the gunman’s mental or intellectual struggles, pointing to another one of her sons, who has special needs.
“I have a son that checked … a lot of those boxes that the shooter did as well,” she said. “And you know what? My son’s not a murderer. My son’s the sweetest person that you could ever meet.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also was disappointed by the jury’s decision, he said Thursday, as well as how long it took for the judicial process to play out.
“I was very disappointed to see that,” he said of the jury’s verdict. “I’m also disappointed that we’re four and a half years after these killings, and we’re just now getting this.”
Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes commended the attorneys in his office who represented the gunman, telling reporters, “With the greatest bit of sympathy, we attempted to prepare this case and present this case in the most professional and legal manner as we could.”
Weekes urged the community to respect the verdict, saying Thursday “is not a day of celebration, but a day of solemn acknowledgment, and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing that is necessary for this community.”
Weekes declined to comment when asked whether Cruz had a reaction to the jury’s recommendation.
Jurors weighed aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances
To decide on a recommended sentence, jurors were asked to weigh the aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances presented by the prosecution and defense during trial.
Prosecutors pointed to seven aggravating factors, including that the killings were especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, as well as cold, calculated and premeditated. Other aggravating factors, prosecutors said, were that the defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many people, and that he disrupted a lawful government function – in this case, the running of a school.
The defense, meantime, offered 41 possible mitigating circumstances, including that Cruz was exposed to alcohol, drugs and nicotine in utero; that he has a “neurodevelopmental disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure;” and that his adoptive mother did not follow the recommendations of medical, mental health and educational providers, among many others.
For each victim, jurors unanimously agreed the state had proven the aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt and that they were sufficient to warrant a possible death sentence.
However, to recommend death, all jurors still would have needed to find that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances. They did not unanimously agree on this, the jurors indicated Thursday on their verdict forms – meaning Cruz must be sentenced to life in prison and not death.
In closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors argued Cruz’s decision to commit the shooting was deliberate and carefully planned, while Cruz’s defense attorneys offered evidence of a lifetime of struggles at home and in school.
“What he wanted to do, what his plan was and what he did, was to murder children at school and their caretakers,” lead prosecutor Michael Satz said Tuesday. “The appropriate sentence for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty,” he concluded.
However, defense attorney Melisa McNeill said Cruz “is a brain damaged, broken, mentally ill person, through no fault of his own.” She pointed to the defense’s claim that Cruz’s mother used drugs and drank alcohol while his mother was pregnant with him, saying he was “poisoned” in her womb.
“And in a civilized humane society, do we kill brain damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “Do we? I hope not.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Peter Wang’s age at the time of his death. He was 15.
CNN’s Denise Royal reported from Fort Lauderdale. Dakin Andone reported and wrote from New York, and Alta Spells reported from Atlanta. Amir Vera, Carlos Suarez and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.