November 28, 2022

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Life sentence recommended for Nikolas Cruz

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FORT LAUDERDALE — Jurors on Thursday recommended life in prison without parole for Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to killing 17 people in the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida.

Victims’ family members seated in the gallery scowled, shook their heads or held them in their hands as circuit judge Elizabeth Scherer read the recommendation Thursday. The 12-person jury came to a decision after seven hours of deliberations over two days, ending a three-month trial where stories of the victims’ execution were retold in graphic detail.

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.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Cruz. But under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote on at least one count. While jurors found that the aggravating evidence was sufficient to warrant a possible death penalty for the gunman, at least one believed the mitigating factors outweighed aggravating ones.

Cruz, then 19 and now 24, pleaded guilty in 2021 to killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.  

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Alyssa Alhadeff’s parents didn’t doubt their daughter’s killer would be sentenced to death when they arrived at the courthouse Thursday morning. The waiting was torture, they said. The eventual verdict was worse.

“This should have been the death penalty, 100%,” said Alyssa’s mother, Lori Alhadeff. “I sent my daughter to school, and she was shot eight times.”

The outcome is incomprehensible, she said. Her husband, Ilan, spoke next.

“I’m disgusted with those jurors. I’m disgusted with the system,” he said. “That you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded and not give the death penalty. What do we have the death penalty for?”

Jurors set a dangerous precedent by recommending life, he said. He urged listeners to “stand up and say ‘That’s not OK.’ “

Jurors’ decision comes more than four years after the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida — the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history — and concludes three months of graphic evidence and wrenching testimony. 

Those who previously only appeared in court to deliver victim impact statements crammed into the gallery beside the ones who’ve attended the proceedings since day one.

The smiling face of Scott Beigel, one of Cruz’s victims, peered out from the lock screen of Scott’s mother’s phone. She tapped the screen each time it went dark, looking at him as she awaited the verdict.

Its arrival Thursday morning came as a surprise to some. Judge Scherer had urged jurors to take their time deliberating, reminding them Tuesday that a “human life is at stake.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented their closing arguments Tuesday. The state urged jurors to sentence Cruz to death while his public defenders asked for mercy, insisting the gunman “was doomed” from birth.

Judge Scherer will sentence Cruz on Nov. 1 at 9 a.m. During that hearing, survivors of the shooting will get a chance to share their views on the verdict.

“The victims have a right to present that testimony,” said Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann.

Prosecution: Cruz was ‘hunting victims’

Throughout the trial, lead prosecutor Michael Satz painted a picture of Cruz as a cold-blooded murder who meticulously planned out the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre and has antisocial personality disorder, not fetal alcohol syndrome as defense attorneys claim. Witnesses testified that Cruz’s birth mother consumed drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant.

With family members of the victims packing the courtroom, Satz repeated gruesome, bloody details of the horror that took place on the first and third floors of the school’s freshman building, recounting vividly to jurors how the students and staff members died.

Cruz, Satz said, was “hunting his victims” and even returned to kill students such as Peter Yang and Joaquin Oliver whose initial gunshot wounds were not fatal, according to medical examiners who testified during the four-month trial. Read more here. 

Defense: Cruz was ‘broken and brain-damaged’

In her closing remarks, Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill asked jurors to consider not only Cruz’s crime but also his personal history, describing Cruz as a “broken, brain-damaged, mentally ill young man” who was “poisoned” in the womb through his birth mother’s frequent use of drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy.  

McNeill focused much of her argument on Cruz’s early childhood, recounting testimony from witnesses describing how Cruz’s late biological mother, Brenda Woodward, smoked cigarettes and drugs and drank beer while she was pregnant.  

During the trial phase of the sentencing hearing, two expert witnesses for the defense testified that Cruz suffered severe brain damage as a result of his biological mother’s alcohol abuse. 

McNeill urged jurors to consider Cruz’s history of mental illness in rendering their decision, and argued that Cruz should be given a life sentence instead of the death penalty. She urged jurors to choose “courage over comfort” and told them that their decision should not be based on anger, revenge or hate. 

“It is the right thing to do,” McNeill said of a life sentence. “Sentencing Nikolas to life and being up here and asking you to do that is the right thing to do.” 

Parkland is the deadliest shooting to go to trial

The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting that has gone to trial in the United States, according to the Associated Press. 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 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.

Contributing: Associated Press

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