FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Two days of emotional hearings concluded Wednesday when a judge sentenced Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz to life in prison without parole.
The sentence, handed down by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, was a formality after a jury last month voted to spare Cruz of the death penalty. Cruz has been charged with 17 counts of murder.
In the two days preceding the Judge’s decision, anguished family members of victims verbally condemned Cruz and levied criticisms at defense attorneys.
The life sentence comes more than four years after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, in which Cruz shot and killed 17 people and injured others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The jury’s decision was met with dismay and disgust by the victims’ family members, the last of whom spoke Wednesday before Scherer passed down the sentence.
Survivors, family members lash out
When he pleaded guilty, Cruz asked for forgiveness. He got none of that Wednesday, as speaker after speaker condemned him in the courtroom.
The statements were similar to those made Tuesday, when family members told Cruz he will “burn in hell.”
Annika Dworet, whose 17-year-old son Nicholas was killed in the shooting, asked what crime, if not Cruz’s, could warrant the death penalty. She read aloud the names of the 17 who died.
On Wednesday, Samantha Fuentes, a survivor of the shooting and former JROTC classmate of Cruz’s, asked the gunman if he remembered her “little battered, bloody face” staring back at him as Cruz sprayed bullets through the window of her classroom door. She could have sworn they locked eyes.
Cruz stared at her without reaction from his seat at the defense table.
Three students died by suicide in the aftermath of the shooting, Fuentes told him. She lives in fear and has struggled with sducidal thoughts, she said.
She picked apart the image of Cruz built by his attorneys — one wracked with mental illness and brain damage.
Some families pushed back against defense attorneys who on Tuesday requested angry victim impact statements aimed at them be reigned in, suggesting that some statements could incite violence.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” said Michael Schulman, the stepfather of Scott Beigel. “Ask me if I feel sorry for Mr. Wheeler, or Ms. McNeill, who had such thin skins that they objected during this proceeding.”
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Sentencing closes years-long case
Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the massacre 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. The stories of the victims’ execution were retold in graphic detail over the course of the three-month trial.
The culmination of that protracted and painful ordeal with a life sentence rather than death shocked many family members.
Alyssa Alhadeff’s parents said they didn’t doubt their daughter’s killer would be sentenced to death. They said the years-long trial was torture, but the eventual verdict was worse.
“This should have been the death penalty one hundred percent,” said Alyssa’s mother, Lori Alhadeff. “I sent my daughter to school, and she was shot eight times.”
Though jurors found aggravating factors such as Cruz’s cold and calculated behavior were enough to warrant a death penalty, at least one juror believed they were outweighed by mitigating circumstances – Cruz’s troubled upbringing, age or mental illness struggles.
Legal experts have speculated multiple jurors were against the death penalty because of the jury’s short deliberation time of little more than a day.
Defense attorneys had argued Cruz’s birth mother’s alcohol abuse left him with severe behavioral problems that eventually led to his 2018 murder of 17 people.
Contributing: Claire Thornton, USA TODAY; Jorge Milian, Palm Beach Post.
Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at [email protected]