Jury in Parkland shooting penalty trial recommends life in prison for Nikolas Cruz
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to life without parole for the 2018 massacre that killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the jury said Thursday that it could not unanimously agree that he should be executed.
The jury's decision to spare Cruz's life left many of the victims' families angry and in tears.
"This is insane. Everyone knows right? This is insane," Chen Wang, cousin of shooting victim Peter Wang, said at a news conference after the jury’s decision was read. "We need justice."
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to murdering 14 students and three staff members, and wounding 17 others, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
"This should have been the death penalty, 100%," Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the shooting, said moments after the verdict was read. "I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome. I cannot understand. I just don’t understand."
Her husband, Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, reacted angrily to the verdict.
"I'm disgusted with those jurors, I'm disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and not get the death penalty," he said. "What do we have the death penalty for? What is the purpose of it? You set a precedent today."
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Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote on at least one count. The jury found there were aggravating factors to warrant the death penalty for each victim, such as agreeing that the murders were "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel." But one or more jurors also found mitigating factors, such as untreated issues he had as a child. In the end, the jury could not agree that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones, so Cruz will get life without parole.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally issue the life sentences Nov. 1. Relatives, along with the students and teachers Cruz wounded, will be given the opportunity to speak at the sentencing hearing. Under Florida law, she cannot depart from the jury’s recommendation of life.
The Alhadeffs and Tony Montalto, father of Gina, who was also killed, did not fault the state prosecutors, and instead laid the blame on the jury.
"How can the mitigating factors make this shooter, who they recognized committed this terrible act — acts, plural — shooting, some victims more than once on a pass, pressing the barrel of his weapon to my daughter’s chest — that doesn’t outweigh that poor little what’s-his-name had a tough upbringing?" Montalto said. "Society really has to reexamine who and what is a victim. My beautiful Gina, the other sons, daughters, spouses, and fathers, they were the victims here. Our justice system should have been used to punish this shooter to the fullest extent of the law – not as an act of revenge but to protect our nation’s schools. To stop others from attacking the future of this country, when they attack our schools."
"Do we want to excuse them because they had a tough time growing up?" he added.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill, seated with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, listens as the last of the 17 verdicts is read in the penalty phase of Cruzs trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on
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Fred Guttenberg, father of victim Jaime, said he believed there was one juror who didn't tell the truth and wasn't going to agree to a death penalty — no matter what.
"She was shot running down a hallway. What mitigating factor did they use on her? Are they going to use he didn’t have the fine motor skills? This jury failed our families today," he said. "I’ll tell you, this monster is going to jail…I hope and pray he will be shown the type of mercy he showed on my daughter. He should’ve received the death sentence today."
Benjamin Thomas, the jury foreperson, told WFOR that three jurors ultimately voted against the death penalty, with one of them being a "hard no" on the decision and another two ultimately choosing to vote against it as well.
"It didn't go the way I would've liked or the way I voted but that's how the jury system works," Thomas said. "I didn't vote that way so I'm not happy with how it turned out, but everybody has the right to decide for themselves. It is a moral decision on their own; some of the jurors just felt that way."
Thomas said the jurors reached their decision Wednesday, then went home to sleep on it before bringing it to the judge on Thursday.
He said he feels bad for the families of victims and that "it hurt" to watch the decisions being read in court. "There’s nothing we could do. It’s the way the law is. And that’s how we voted," he said.
Among the mitigating factors presented at trial included arguments by the defense that Cruz suffered lifelong developmental delays that resulted from his biological mother's substance abuse during pregnancy.
The wife of Chris Hixon, Debra, said she was "completely devastated and shocked" by the verdict. Chris was an Iraq War veteran turned school security guard, coach and athletic director later transferred to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He was on patrol there the day Cruz opened fire on campus.
Hixon grabbed a golf cart and went speeding toward the sound of gunfire. His first reaction was to protect students and stop the carnage. Accounts from survivors say he attempted to disarm the 19-year-old shooter, who was firing into defenseless crowds of students and teachers. His devotion to the students he loved cost Hixon, a father of two, his life.
Corey Hixon leans in close to his mother, Debbie Hixon, while giving his victim impact statement during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman. Hixon's husband and Coreys' father, Christopher, was killed in the 2018 shootings. (Photo by A
"Right now, it feels like [Cruz's] life is more important than Christopher’s," Debra said. "His life meant more than the 17 that were murdered…and the thousands of people in that school and that community. Even if every single one of those mitigating circumstances were true…how does anyone of those mitigators outweigh those aggravating factors?"
"I have a son with special needs," she added, "and you know what, my son is not a murderer. This person had services. He had love. He had the best upbringing his mother could give him."
FROM 2019: Plant City teacher will 'never forget' her friend, Parkland shooting victim Chris Hixon
Following the recommendation, the Stand With Parkland group – which includes parents and spouses of Parkland shooting victims – issued the following statement from President Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was killed:
"Today’s ruling was yet another gut punch for so many of us who devastatingly lost our loved ones on that tragic Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 17 beautiful lives were cut short, by murder, and the monster that killed them gets to live to see another day. While this sentence fails to punish the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law — it will not stop our mission to effect positive change at a federal, state and local level to prevent school shooting tragedies from shattering other American families."
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who served on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission, addressed the verdict Thursday afternoon, blasting the jury's decision.
"Nothing that comes out of Broward County surprises me. If there's ever been anyone on the face of the Earth that deserved the death penalty, it was that evil, violent, murdering piece of trash that massacred those children," Judd said. "There's never been a more cold, calculated, premeditated murder than that, and if you can't get the death penalty for that in Broward County, that's not a safe county to live in."
The verdict came after a three-month trial that included graphic videos, photos, and testimony from the massacre and its aftermath, heart-wrenching testimony from victims’ family members, and a tour of the still blood-spattered building.
Cruz, his hair unkempt, largely sat hunched over and stared at the table as the jury’s recommendations were read. Rumblings grew from the family section — packed with about three dozen parents, spouses, and other relatives of the victims — as life sentences were announced. Many shook their heads, looked angry or covered their eyes.
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Montalto, president of Stand With Parkland, which represents most of the families and other relatives, also said the decision would do nothing to deter another person from gunning down multiple people in a school.
Michael Schulman, the stepfather of teacher Scott Beigel, said the decision gives anyone a license to kill, then claim mental illness as a defense. "This animal deserves to die. He hunted all of these people," Schulman said. "He planned it for months."
As he spoke to the media, Schulman held up a laptop with an image of Cruz in the school hallway with a gun. "The last thing my son saw was the gunman aiming at him," he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said it "stings" that Cruz did not receive the death penalty.
In a case like this, "where you’re massacring those students with premeditation in utter disregard for basic humanity ... I just don’t think anything else is appropriate except a capital sentence," DeSantis said.
Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor released a statement Thursday saying: "We have not shied away from telling all of the horror, all of the loss, all of the devastation, all of the pain, all of the facts, all of the truth. We hope that, while there is no such thing as closure, this will bring some measure of finality and justice to this terrible chapter."
The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting to ever go to trial. Nine other people in the U.S. who fatally shot at least 17 people died during or immediately after their attacks by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.
What happened during the Parkland sentencing trial?
Lead prosecutor Mike Satz kept his case simple for the seven-man, five-woman jury. He focused on Cruz’s eight months of planning, the seven minutes he stalked the halls of a three-story classroom building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, and his escape.
He played security videos of the shooting and showed gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos. Teachers and students testified about watching others die. He took the jury to the fenced-off building, which remains blood-stained and bullet-pocked. Parents and spouses gave tearful and angry statements.
Cruz’s lead attorney Melisa McNeill and her team never questioned the horror he inflicted, but focused on their belief that his birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy left him with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Their experts said his bizarre, troubling and sometimes violent behavior starting at age 2 was misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, meaning he never got the proper treatment. That left his widowed adoptive mother overwhelmed, they said.
The defense cut their case short, calling only about 25 of the 80 witnesses they said would testify. They never brought up Cruz’s high school years or called his younger half-brother, Zachary, whom they accused of bullying.
In rebuttal, Satz and his team contended that Cruz did not suffer from fetal alcohol damage but has antisocial personality disorder — in lay terms, he’s a sociopath. Their witnesses said Cruz faked brain damage during testing and that he was capable of controlling his actions, but chose not to. For example, they pointed to his employment as a cashier at a discount store where he never had any disciplinary issues.
Prosecutors also played numerous video recordings of Cruz discussing the crime with their mental health experts where he talked about his planning and motivation.
The defense alleged on cross-examination that Cruz was sexually molested and raped by a 12-year-old neighbor when he was 9.
On Tuesday, Cruz, sat impassively during closing arguments, occasionally exchanging notes with his attorneys. A large number of the victims’ parents, wives, and family members packed their section of the courtroom, many of them weeping during Satz’s presentations.
The mother of a murdered 14-year-old girl fled the courtroom before bursting into loud sobs in the hallway. Just minutes earlier, the families had greeted each other with smiles, handshakes, and hugs.
Satz meticulously went through the murders, reminding the jurors how each victim died and how Cruz looked some in the eye before he shot them multiple times.
"They all knew what was going on, what was going to happen," Satz said.
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As he had during the trial, Satz played security videos of the shooting and showed photos. He talked about the death of one 14-year-old girl. Cruz shot her and then went back to shoot her again, putting his gun against her chest.
"Right on her skin. She was shot four times, and she died," Satz said. He then noted a YouTube comment, which jurors saw during the trial, in which Cruz said: "I don’t mind shooting a girl in the chest."
"That’s exactly what he did," Satz said.
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His voice breaking, Satz concluded his two-hour presentation by reciting the victims’ names, then saying that for their murders "the appropriate sentence for Nikolas Cruz is the death penalty."
McNeill, the defense attorney, during her presentation, acknowledged the horror Cruz inflicted and said jurors have every right to be angry, "but how many times have we made decisions based solely on anger and regretted it?"
She focused on her belief that heavy drinking by his birth mother, Brenda Woodard, during pregnancy left him with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She said that accounts for his bizarre, troubling, and sometimes violent behavior starting at age 2.
"There is no time in our lives when we are more vulnerable to the will and the whims of another human being than when we are growing and developing in the wombs of our mothers," McNeill said. Woodard "poisoned him in the womb. He was doomed in the womb."
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She said Cruz’s increasingly erratic personality left his widowed adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, overwhelmed. He punched holes in walls when he lost video games, destroyed furniture and killed animals. Visitors described the home as "a war zone," McNeill said.
She pleaded with the jurors to give Cruz a life sentence, telling them that even if they are the only holdout they shouldn’t fear what the reaction will be from the families or the community.
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"Sentencing Nikolas to death will not change that. It will not bring back those 17 dead people. Sentencing Nikolas to death will literally serve no purpose other than vengeance," she said. Instead, she said, "Look into your heart. Look into your soul. The right thing here, not the popular thing, is a life sentence."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.