FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz formally received a sentence of life without parole Wednesday after families of his 17 slain victims spent two days berating him as evil, a coward, a monster and a subhuman.
What You Need To Know
- Nikolas Cruz, shackled and in a red jail jumpsuit, watched intently as Judge Elizabeth Scherer sentenced him to 17 life terms
- The jury in Cruz’s three-month penalty trial voted 9-3 on Oct. 13 to sentence him to death; the vote had to be unanimous for the death penalty
- The judge commended the families and wounded who testified, calling them strong, graceful and patient
- BELOW: Family members of the victims cursed, berated Cruz on Tuesday
Cruz, shackled and in a red jail jumpsuit, watched intently as Judge Elizabeth Scherer sentenced him to 17 life terms for the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in suburban Fort Lauderdale and an additional 17 for the attempted murders of those he wounded.
Scherer had no other choice; the jury in Cruz’s three-month penalty trial voted 9-3 on Oct. 13 to sentence him to death, but Florida law requires unanimity for that sentence to be imposed.
Cruz acknowledged under questioning by the judge before sentencing that he is on medication but could understand what was occurring.
The judge commended the families and wounded who testified, calling them strong, graceful and patient.
“I know you are going to be OK, because you have each other,” Scherer said.
The judge’s voice broke as she read the first of the 34 life sentences, but her voice gained strength and volume she moved down the list. Some parents and other family members wept as she read.
Families and the wounded spent two days verbally thrashing Cruz, wishing him a painful demise in prison and lamenting that he could not be sentenced to death.
“Real justice would be done if every family here were given a bullet and your AR-15 and we got to pick straws, and each one of us got to shoot one at a time at you, making sure that you felt every bit of it, and your fear continued to mount until the last family member who pulled that last straw had the privilege of making sure that they killed you,” said Linda Beigel Schulman, mother of teacher Scott Beigel. “That’s real justice for you.”
Beigel Schulman said she takes some comfort in knowing that Cruz is headed to a maximum-security prison where he will have to worry constantly about his safety for the rest of his life.
“From what I hear, child killers are highly frowned upon and hated in prison,” Beigel Schulman said to Cruz. “I welcome the day that I’m told that you’ve been tortured and taken out for your cold-blooded, premediated, calculated, heinous murders, because you deserve no less.”
IMPLICATIONS FOR FLORIDA'S DEATH PENALTY
All 12 jurors did not agree on the death penalty. The Florida law requiring a unanimous decision for the death penalty has been in place since a 2016 Florida Supreme Court ruling. The state’s highest court reversed that ruling in 2020, but the state legislature hasn’t changed the law.
After the jury’s decision, Governor Ron DeSantis said reforms are needed, but hasn’t specified what action he or the legislature will take.
“He couldn’t do that by executive order - the legislature would have to not repeal that statute, but amend that statute,” said Jonathan Rose, an Orlando criminal defense attorney.
“That could be done in any number of ways, whether that’s a good idea or not under these circumstances is up for debate.”
Rose cautions against death penalty reforms in reaction to Cruz’s case.
“I understand the outrage, I understand their anger, but this is something that should not be dealt with in a reactionary or summary fashion in my view,” said Rose.
“This is a one-size-fits-all situation - there’s no way to adjust the statutes and the rules for how people are put to death depending on what the evidence of the case is - so I would hope the Governor and the legislature are very judicious about how they handle this moving forward, if there is anything to be handled at all.”
FAMILY MEMBERS GOT CHANCE TO ADDRESS NIKOLAS CRUZ
Families of the 17 children and staff members Cruz murdered cursed him to hell, wished him a painful death and called him a coward Tuesday as they got their one chance to address him directly.
For hours, parents, wives, siblings, children and some of the those Cruz also wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018 stood 20 feet from him. They looked the shackled killer in the eye and gave vehement, angry and sometimes tearful statements.
Cruz, 24, stared back at them, dressed in a bright red jail jumpsuit, showing no emotion behind a COVID-19 face mask.
One by one, those most deeply impacted by the massacre described in great emotional detail how Cruz’s actions tore their lives apart, even if it wasn’t easy to do so.
Sentencing expected to last two days.— Jeff Allen (@News13JeffAllen) November 1, 2022
Family of victims are now poignantly delivering victim impact statements directly to Cruz, feet away in the courtroom.
This is Debbi Hixon, wife of Chris Hixon, coach and AD killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS.#NikolasCruzSentencing pic.twitter.com/Gznq5ih3zZ
“No one that’s up here right now can imagine what it’s like to have a little sister murdered," said Meghan Petty, sister to 14-year-old victim Alaina Petty. "You cannot begin to, excuse me, understand the depth of pain that it is to relive it in a very public setting surround by strangers.”
Most decried that his jury voted 9-3 for death but did not reach the unanimity required under state law for that sentence to be imposed.
Though, one of the victim's relatives said they actually preferred life in prison.
“He’s someone who really deeply needs help, so I hope he gets it,” said Robert Schentrup, who lost his 16-year-old younger sister Carmen.
Schentrup, a UCF graduate, is living in Central Florida trying to move on from Parkland by working every day on measures to prevent gun violence. “For me and my part in this healing process is creating a legacy for her that she never got to have," Schentrup said.
Some of the families verbally attacked Cruz’s public defenders, accusing them of misleading the jurors who voted for a life sentence into believing his birth mother’s excessive drinking had left him brain damaged and unable to control himself. Some hoped that their consciences would haunt them forever and would experience the pain they have felt, with at least one parent mentioning the attorneys’ children.
“The legal system should protect and impart justice, justice, justice,” Patricia Oliver said, leaning over the lectern toward the defense attorneys and accusing them of “shameful, despicable behavior.” Cruz wounded her 17-year-old son Joaquin in the leg and then tracked him into a bathroom alcove. There, Cruz fatally shot her son in the head with his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle as he raised his hand to protect himself.
“If this, the worst mass shooting to go to trial, does not deserve the death penalty, what does?” she said.
Nine other U.S. gunmen who killed at least 17 people took their own lives or were killed by police. The suspect in the 2019 deaths of 23 people at a Walmart in Texas is awaiting trial.
Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill eventually asked Judge Scherer to stop the families from attacking her and her colleagues directly, saying they had worked within the parameters of Cruz’s constitutional rights in defending him.
“I did my job, and every member of this team did our job, and we should not personally be attacked for that, nor should our children,” McNeill said, drawing a murmur from where the families sat.
Prosecutor Carolyn McCann told Scherer that the victims have the right under state law and the Constitution to “express themselves and be heard.”
After lunch break, the judge dismissed defense claims some victim impact statements were directed unfairly at the defense team.— Jeff Allen (@News13JeffAllen) November 1, 2022
After a couple more family members spoke, court recessed until 1:30pm Wednesday.
Judge will sentence Cruz Wednesday.#NikolasCruzSentencing pic.twitter.com/O6kPEWO7Qm
When McNeill tried to respond to McCann, telling the judge she knew the parents were violating court decorum, Scherer stopped her. The two have had a testy and sometimes hostile relationship since pretrial hearings.
“Stop suggesting that I know that something is improper,” Scherer said, saying she had heard enough. She took no action against the families.
Cruz apologized in court last year after pleading guilty to the murders and attempted murders, but families told reporters they found the apology aimed at garnering sympathy. He fired 140 shots during his seven-minute attack, which he had planned for seven months.
This is just some of what was said Tuesday to Cruz:
— “You stole him from us, and you did not receive the justice that you deserved,” said Debra Hixon, whose husband, athletic director Chris Hixon, died running at Cruz to stop him. Cruz shot him again after he fell wounded to the ground. “You’ll be sent to jail, you’ll begin your punishment, you’ll be a number, and for me you will cease to exist.”
— “We hope that you, the monster who did this to our son, endure a painful existence in your remaining days,” said Eric Wikander, the father of student Ben Wikander, who has undergone seven surgeries to repair his wounds.
— “Because of you, I check for all exits wherever I am,” said teacher Stacey Lippel, who was wounded. “Because of you, I think of the worst-case scenario for myself and my family. Because of you, I will never feel safe again. I have no forgiveness in my heart for you.”