By TERRY SPENCER (Associated Press)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A jury spared Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty Thursday for killing 17 people at a Parkland high school in 2018, sending him to prison for the remainder of his life in a decision that left many families of the victims angered, baffled 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.
The three-month trial to determine whether he should be executed included graphic videos and photos from the massacre and its aftermath, heart-wrenching testimony from victims’ family members and a tour of the still blood-spattered building. The jury rejected the death penalty after deliberating for about seven hours over two days.
His lead public defender, Melisa McNeill, told the jury during her closing argument Tuesday that life in prison would still be a horrible punishment and suggested that other prisoners might target him.
But that wasn’t enough for many family members, who went before television cameras, one by one, to express their shock and anger at the jury’s decision. Some called Cruz a “monster,” while others cried.
“We are beyond disappointed with the outcome today,” Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter, Alyssa, was killed, said at the news conference.
“This should have been the death penalty, 100%. … I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. … I cannot understand. I just don’t understand.”
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.
Cruz, his hair unkempt, largely sat hunched over and stared at the table as the jury’s decisions were read. Rumblings grew from the family section — packed with about three dozen parents, spouses and other relatives of the victims — as it became apparent the jury was not going to recommend the death penalty. Many shook their heads, looked angry or covered their eyes as the judge spent 50 minutes reading the jury’s decision for each victim. Some parents sobbed as they left court.
Jury foreman Benjamin Thomas, in an interview broadcast on local TV station WPLG, indicated that more than one juror voted for life in prison instead of the death penalty.
“We went through all the evidence and some of the jurors just felt that was the appropriate sentence,” Thomas said. “I didn’t vote that way, so I’m not happy with how it worked out, but everyone has the right to decide for themselves.”
He 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.
“This has been really hard on my heart … I’d rather not see anything like this ever again.”
Tony Montalto, father of Gina Montalto, expressed disbelief at the finding. He said the jury recognized that Cruz committed terrible acts, “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?”
“Our justice system should have been used to punish this shooter to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
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.
Multiple family members talked about the years they waited for justice. They thanked prosecutors for their work, but in the end, they said, they got another blow.
Just days after the shooting, Cruz’s defense had offered that he plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. But then-Broward State Attorney Mike Satz rejected that.
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.”
Cruz, a former student at the school, said he chose Valentine’s Day to make it impossible for Stoneman Douglas students to celebrate the holiday again.
The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting to go to trial in the U.S. 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.
Satz, the lead prosecutor, 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 the three-story building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semi-automatic 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.
The defense 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 its 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, who allegedly bullied Cruz.
In rebuttal, Satz and his team contended that Cruz did not suffer from fetal alcohol damage but has antisocial personality disorder.
Their witnesses said Cruz faked brain damage during testing and that he was capable of controlling his actions, but chose not to.
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.