At an emotional hearing, the Parkland shooter is formally sentenced to life in prison
The shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 has officially been sentenced to life in prison after an emotional two-day hearing in which family members of the victims confronted him in court.
In a Florida courtroom on Wednesday, Nikolas Cruz, now 24, was formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for each of 17 charges of first-degree murder. He also received a life sentence for each count of attempted first-degree murder, one for each of the 17 he wounded.
As Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer read the sentence — one for each count, naming each of his victims — the survivors and family members who had gathered in the courtroom held hands and wept.
“You all have been so strong and patient and graceful throughout this process, and I can’t help but think how I would behave or respond if I were in your shoes. The way that you have behaved so gracefully, and showed extraordinary restraint throughout this process, is something that I’ve never seen,” Scherer said.
The hearing gave families an opportunity to speak directly to Cruz himself, and many chose to do so, expressing their grief and fury over the loss of their loved ones.
Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed, said she hopes that Cruz is “miserable for the rest of your pathetic life. My hope for you is that the pain of what you did to my family burns and traumatizes you every day.”
On Feb. 14, 2018, Cruz returned to the high school in Parkland, Fla., where he had been a student. Armed with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, he stalked through hallways of a school building for about six minutes, killing 14 students and three staff members. He escaped from the scene by dropping his gun and running among the fleeing students, authorities later said, and was caught by police about an hour later.
With a confession, eyewitnesses and surveillance camera footage, a conviction had been all but assured. Cruz pleaded guilty last October.
At his three-month-long trial, which began earlier this year, a Fort Lauderdale jury was tasked with recommending a sentence. They had only two options: life in prison or the death penalty.
From the beginning, his defense team had one goal — avoiding the death penalty. In the end, they were successful, convincing a jury that his mother’s abuse of alcohol and drugs while she was pregnant with him had left Cruz mentally impaired.
Grief and fury in the victim impact statements
The judge had no power to change Cruz’s sentence, but over a two-day hearing this week, Scherer allowed those affected by the shooting – both those who survived and family members of those who did not – to address the gunman and comment on the sentencing.
For hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, they expressed their grief and rage. Many denounced the jury’s decision to allow Cruz to avoid the death penalty.
And for the first time, they spoke directly to Cruz, something they had not been allowed to do during the trial. (Under Florida law, juries are told they cannot take victim statements into account in determining a verdict.)
They called him a monster, a sociopath, a “murdering bastard.” One wished for him to “burn in hell.”
“The idea that you, a coldblooded killer, can actually live each day, eat your meals and put your head down at night – it seems completely unjust,” said Stacey Lippel, a teacher who was wounded in the shooting. “The only comfort I have is that your life in prison will be filled with horror and fear.”
Other families directed their anger at Florida’s legal processes and at Cruz’s defense attorneys, including lead attorney Melisa McNeill.
Max Schachter, whose 14-year old son Alex was killed at the school, said that law was unfair to the victims and their families. And he accused McNeill of falsely claiming that Cruz had not received adequate mental health treatment.
“It’s irresponsible for you to make a statement that is an outright lie,” Schachter said. “You’re making the mental health crisis in America worse by misrepresenting what happened to the Parkland murderer.”
Eventually, some statements grew so heated that McNeill asked the judge to intervene. “I did my job and every member of his team did their job, Judge. And we should not be personally attacked for that,” she said.
The judge refused.
Some have called for Florida to change death sentence rules
Cruz’s sentence of life in prison has renewed calls for Florida’s state legislature to change the state’s rules around death sentences.
The state once required a simple majority for a death sentence – or seven jurors on a panel of 12 – but after a series of court decisions, in 2016 Florida began requiring unanimous verdicts. (In federal courts and in every state in which jurors determine the sentence, with the sole exception of Alabama, unanimous verdicts are required for capital punishment.)
“When you murder in cold blood 17 innocent people, there’s no other punishment that meets the gravity of that crime. And to have one juror holdout on that was a travesty,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis at a recent gubernatorial debate. “So, yes, I’m going to ask the Florida legislature to amend that statute.”
In their statements this week, some Parkland families joined the call for the state legislature to act to allow a majority or supermajority vote for a death sentence.
“This would be more fair to the victims,” said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed.