The gunman who carried out the Parkland school shooting has been formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury last month failed to unanimously recommend the death penalty, disappointing and angering many of the families of the 17 people he killed.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer imposed the statutorily mandated sentence Wednesday, ordering Nikolas Cruz, 24, to serve a life sentence with no possibility of parole for each of the 17 counts of murder to which he had pleaded guilty, with the sentences to run consecutively.
Additionally, Scherer imposed a sentence of life in prison with a minimum of 20 years to serve on 14 of the 17 counts of attempted murder, and life without the possibility of parole for the remaining three counts of attempted murder. All counts are to run consecutively, the judge ruled.
The end of the monthslong trial to decide Cruz’s fate came after two days of victim impact testimony in which families of those killed and survivors of the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida confronted the gunman, spelling out for the court what he took from them and expressing their anger he will not be put to death.
“It is heartbreaking how any person who heard and saw all this did not give this killer the worst punishment possible,” Annika Dworet, the mother of 17-year-old victim Nicholas Dworet, said Wednesday. “As we all know the worst punishment in the state of Florida is the death penalty. How much worse would the crime have to be to warrant the death penalty?”
“You robbed Alyssa (of) a lifetime of memories,” Lori Alhadeff, the mother of 14-year-old victim Alyssa Alhadeff, said to the gunman. “Alyssa will never graduate from high school. Alyssa will never go to college, and Alyssa will never play soccer. She will never get married and she will never have a baby.”
“My hope for you is that you are miserable for the rest of your pathetic life,” Lori Alhadeff added. “My hope for you is that the pain of what you did to my family burns and traumatizes you every day.”
Cruz pleaded guilty last year to the 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection to the shooting, which, despite the continued American gun violence epidemic, remains the deadliest mass shooting at a US high school.
The state sought the death penalty, and so Cruz’s trial moved to the sentencing phase, in which a jury was tasked with hearing prosecutors and defense attorneys argue reasons they felt he should or should not be put to death.
The prosecution argued, in part, the shooting was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel and was premeditated and calculated. The defense, pushing for a life sentence, pointed to the shooter’s mental or intellectual deficits they said stemmed from prenatal alcohol exposure.
Three jurors were persuaded to vote for life, sparing Cruz a death sentence, which in Florida a jury must unanimously recommend. Scherer must follow the jury’s recommendation of life without parole, per state law.
Throughout the testimony this week, the gunman remained emotionless, wearing a red prison jumpsuit and eyeglasses. He also wore a medical mask, though he removed it Wednesday after Jennifer Guttenberg, the mother of 14-year-old victim Jaime, told him it was disrespectful.
“You shouldn’t be sitting there with a mask on your face. It’s disrespectful to be hiding your expressions under your mask when we as the families are sitting here talking to you,” she said during her testimony. “Lowered down in your seat. Hunched over trying to make yourself look innocent, when you’re not, because you admitted to what you did. And everybody knows what you did.”
The gunman then took off the mask, but his facial expression did not change.
Of those killed, 14 were students, and three were staff members who perished running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.
The slain students were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, also were killed.
The life sentence fell short of what many of those Cruz wounded and the families of those he killed wanted. Some said in testimony this week it indicated the jury gave more weight to his life than to the lives of the 17 dead.
“It’s really, really sad. I miss my little boy,” Max Schachter, Alex Schachter’s father, told CNN Wednesday before the sentencing. “It’s not right that the worst high school shooter in US history basically gets what he wants,” he said, referring to Cruz’s life sentence.
Samantha Fuentes, one of the shooting survivors, faced Cruz Wednesday, admitting she was “angry” about his sentence. But unlike him, she said, “I’ll never take my anger, pain and suffering out on others because I am stronger than you. This entire community that stands behind me is stronger than you.”
Fuentes reminded Cruz they walked the same hallways and were even in JROTC together.
“We were still children back then,” she said. “I was still a child when I saw you standing in the window, peering into my Holocaust studies class, holding your AR-15 that had swastikas, ironically, scratched into it. I was still a child after I watched you kill two of my friends. I was still a child when you shot me with your gun.”
Another student, Victoria Gonzalez, Joaquin Oliver’s girlfriend, similarly reminded the gunman that they, too, had shared a class together, recalling how the teacher would go around the room each day asking students for an answer from their homework to make sure each student had done it. Each day, she said, she hoped that Cruz had his – for his sake.
“I was rooting for you silently in my desk. You had no idea who I was and I was rooting for you,” Gonzalez said. “Because I felt like you needed someone or you needed something. And I could feel that.”
But Joaquin’s murder has made it hard for Gonzalez to make friends, to get close to others, she said, and to allow others to love her in the way he did.
“I wish that you met Joaquin,” she said. “Because he would have been your friend. He would have extended a hand to you.”
Michael Schulman, the father of Scott Beigel, told the court about the geography teacher’s altruistic nature and the impact he left on his students and cross-country athletes. The gunman stole not only a son, but a teacher, as well, he said.
“You are spineless and soulless monster. My son Scott was a human being – he still is – something you will never be and never were,” Schulman said.
Beigel’s mother, Linda Beigel Schulman, also addressed the court and the shooter, telling him, “I have never uttered your name, and I never will.”
She ended her statement by holding up a picture of the deceased victims. “These are the names and faces I want you to remember,” she said, including her son Scott, “who I will honor, cherish and love for every day of the rest of my life.”
See the moment judge dismisses member of Parkland shooter’s defense team
Some of the victim impact testimony this week was directed not only at Cruz but at the public defenders who represented him.
That led the defense to object, including Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes, who asked Scherer Tuesday to direct the state to encourage witnesses not to make statements to or about the lawyers. They were just doing their jobs as the law provides all criminal defendants a right to legal representation, he said.
That further angered some of the Parkland family members, including Fred Guttenberg, Jaime’s father, who called Wednesday for Weekes to resign.
“I understand that you have a job to do, defending the indefensible, defending a mass murderer of 17 people. I understand that was hard,” he said to the defense attorneys. “And you were doing your job as you were required to do. But I’m not sure anywhere along the way there was a requirement that you give up your humanity and your decency. That was a choice you made.”
A lot is still unclear about what Cruz’s future will look like. He’ll likely be held in Broward County custody before being handed over to the Florida Department of Corrections and taken to one of several reception centers across the state.
There, Cruz will spend weeks undergoing physical and mental examinations, Florida criminal defense attorney Janet Johnson has told CNN. “They’ll look at his record, they’ll look at the level of crime that he’s convicted of, which is obviously the highest, and they’ll recommend a facility somewhere in the state,” she said.
Which facility is determined by factors including the seriousness of the offense, the length of sentence and the inmate’s prior criminal record, per the Florida State Department of Corrections website. Typically, those convicted of the most serious offenses or with the longest sentences are placed in the most secure facilities, the website says.
Because Cruz is a high-risk offender, he will likely be placed in a prison with other high-profile or “very dangerous criminals,” Johnson said.
“But he wouldn’t be isolated, which of course, is a real threat for him because there may be people who want to do ‘prison justice,’ who didn’t feel that the sentence he got in court was enough,” Johnson added.
The corrections department did not answer CNN’s question about what kind of mental health treatment Cruz may receive while in prison. During the trial, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office released more than 30 pages of writings and drawings by Cruz which revealed disturbing thoughts he has had while in custody, focusing on guns, blood and death.
On one page, Cruz wrote that he wanted to go to death row, while on another he told his family he was sad and hoped to die of a heart attack by taking painkillers and through extreme eating.
As for the victims and their families, the end of the gunman’s trial marks simply the close of one chapter in a lifelong journey with grief.
“I want to put this behind me,” Max Schachter told CNN on Wednesday. “I’m going to court later today. He will be sentenced to life, and I will never think about this murderer again.”