In the final hours of the two-day sentencing hearing for Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the family members of some of his victims had the chance to fiercely confront not only him but his defense team for their behavior before, during, and after the trial.
“This man, this animal, this piece of shit, this bastard took the lives of 17 people,” seethed Michael Schulman, the father of slain Parkland teacher Scott Beigel. “You have a right to defend him. You have no right, no right to demean the people who lost somebody. None.”
At another point in his Wednesday statement, Schulman referenced a moment caught on a court camera weeks earlier. Just before a pre-trial hearing, one of Cruz’s attorneys, Tamara Curtis, noticed a cameraperson manually adjust their setup to focus on their table. She raised her middle finger, rubbing it on her cheek. Cruz then appeared to smother a laugh.
“Zealous representation of a confessed murderer does not mean flipping the bird when you think the cameras aren’t on you,” Schulman said. “You should be embarrassed.”
Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin, 17, died after being shot four times, calmly lifted his own middle finger at Cruz’s counsel during his testimony, scoffing at them for “hiding your actions.”
Continuing to address them, Oliver added that after the nearly four-week, livestreamed trial, “a lot of people will hate all of you guys now.”
The defense had been watched closely by the parents of 17-year-old Nicholas Dworet, Annika and Mitch Dworet, who attended every day of the trial. In her statement, Annika Dworet called the experience of being in the same room as the the “monster” who killed her son “unbearable.”
But “one of the most disgusting and unprofessional actions that occurred in this courtroom,” she continued, “was the defense team holding, touching, and giggling with this cold-blooded murderer.”
Statements from the families ran the gamut from measured to passionate, but emotions in the courtroom did not reach the heights seen Tuesday, after Judge Elizabeth Scherer—who had been locking horns with Cruz’s team for weeks—raised her voice over the defense as they tried to argue they were being “personally attacked” by victims’ families in their first day of testimony.
“When these people are upset about specific things that have gone on from that table,” Scherer snarled at one point on Tuesday, “like shooting the middle finger up at this court, and laughing, and joking—Mrs. McNeill, be quiet—when these people have sat in this courtroom and watched this behavior from that table and they want to say that they’re not happy about it, what is the problem?”
After repeatedly telling members of the defense counsel to “sit down” and “be quiet,” Scherer eventually ejected lead public defender Melisa McNeill and her chief assistant David Wheeler from the courtroom on Tuesday.
The next day, as the parents turned one by one to address Cruz, they castigated him as a monster while openly grieving what he’d taken from them on Feb. 14, 2018.
Oliver said he had been advised not to attend the hearing, over concerns he might speak out of turn and harm the proceedings. But his voice was steady as he pointed at Cruz and said, “You’re gonna die before me. And I will celebrate when you die.”
“You shot my kid four times. You blew his head. His marvelous brain and ideas and dreams. You destroyed him,” he said. Despite having earlier said that he would “try” not to use profanity, Oliver added that he saw it as the duty of the Parkland parents to “come here and let you know what is right or wrong—when you fuck with our childrens.”
As every day before in court, the shackled Cruz faced the court blankly, showing no emotion as relatives of his victims railed at him.
Linda Beigel Schulman, Beigel’s mother, painted a more explicit picture of what punishment some relatives wished Cruz would get. “Real justice would be done if every family here were given a bullet and your AR-15 and we got to pick straws,” she said, “and each one of us got to shoot one at a time at you, making sure that you felt every bit of it, and your fear continued to mount until the last family member who pulled that last straw had the privilege of making sure that they killed you.”
Cruz was formally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Wednesday, after a jury recommended the punishment over the death penalty. The decision angered many family members of the victims, including Manuel Oliver.
“Even the death penalty was not enough for me,” he told ABC News at the time. “The way that Joaquin died… the amount of suffering and pain, the shooter will have never received that punishment.”
Later that day, he tweeted that the outcome of the trial sent a disturbing message to other would-be gunmen. “Mass murderers: you get to live your natural life, you get your 3 hot meals a day, you get to shower every day, get medical attention, hey, even a hobby or a new education.”
At that point, Oliver—who chose not to attend the death penalty trial—said he was undecided on whether he would make an appearance to make a victim impact statement. “I might need to do that, but I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to spend more time thinking about this horrendous person, this monster.”
Before she read out the totality of Cruz’s 34 life sentences, Scherer turned to the families, commending them and their testimony. “I know you are going to be OK,” she said, according to the Associated Press, “because you have each other.”