Parkland shooter’s victims face him in court one more time before he is sentenced to life in prison
The Parkland school shooter is gunman Nikolas Cruz formally sentenced this week to life in prison – but not until the families of those he killed in 2018 have one more chance to face him in court.
“You stole it from us, and you didn’t get the justice you deserved,” Debra Hixon, the widow of the victim Christopher HixonCruz said in an early statement Tuesday morning, referring to a Florida jury’s decision last month not to recommend that he be sentenced to death.
“You have been given a gift – a gift of grace and mercy,” he added, “something you have not shown any of your victims.”
After a month-long trial to decide whether Cruz should receive the death penalty, a jury recommended that he serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the shooting at a South Florida high school in which 17 people were killed, spared his life after his defense lawyers argued he was a disturbed, mentally ill person.
Why the jurors recommend life – three voted against a death sentence, which in Florida must be unanimous – Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer must stand by her decision when she sentences Cruz, 24, who pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Scherer is expected to issue a formal sentence on Wednesday after the victims’ loved ones, many of whom were disappointed and angered by the jury’s verdict recommendation, have another chance to take the stand starting Tuesday for testify about the impact of their actions.
The end of Cruz’s trial comes just over a year after he pleaded guilty in connection with the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which catalyzed a national call for reform of the gun control led by teenage shooting survivors and victims’ families. Remain the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school, even as the scourge of gun violence on US campuses continues; last week, a teacher and a student were killed in a shooting in St. Louis.
Many of the Parkland families have already testified over several days this summer as prosecutors closed their case, describing the depth of the loss they had suffered. But those statements, according to the father of the 14-year-old victim Jaime Guttenberg, who was among the 14 students killed, do not include everything the families wanted to say because they have to be verified by lawyers from both sides.
“It wasn’t how we felt,” Fred Guttenberg told CNN last month after the jury’s decision. “At the sentencing hearing, we will have to say what we want, including discussing how we feel now about this verdict.”
The second round of victim impact testimony will take place over two days, with those who survived the shooting still having the right to speak, the Broward County State’s Attorney’s Office confirmed to CNN in a statement. It is not clear how many of them or the loved ones of the victims will take the stand, but no time limits have been imposed, and some people will be able to testify via video conference.
Victim impact statements this week do not need to be submitted to attorneys in advance, the state attorney’s office said.
“I have a lot more I want to say. I have a lot more I want to say directly to the killer,” Guttenberg told CNN, adding: “Now we have to tell him exactly how we feel about him.”
Because of his plea, Cruz skipped the guilt phase of his trial and instead went straight to the sentencing phase, in which prosecutors sought the death penalty while Cruz-appointed public defenders pushed for life speechless
To reach their decisions, jurors heard prosecutors and defense attorneys argue for months aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances – reasons that Cruz should or should not be executed.
Prosecutors pointed to seven aggravating factors, including that the killings were especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, as well as cold, calculated and premeditated, supporting their case with evidence that the killer spent months meticulously planning the shooting, modifying the his AR-15 to improve his aim and the accumulation of ammunition.
Prosecutors also presented Cruz’s online research history showing how he searched for information about past mass shootings, as well as comments he left on YouTube, sharing his expressed desire to commit mass murder.
“What one writes,” lead prosecutor Michael Satz he said during closing arguments“what one says, is a window to someone’s soul.”
But defense lawyers said their client should have been sentenced to life instead, pointing to a life of struggles that began before he was even born: His biological mother, they said, used drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant with Cruz, causing a lot of mental and intellectual. deficits arising from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Despite his problems — and educators and school counselors who were concerned about his behavior and poor academic performance — Cruz never received adequate or appropriate intervention, defense attorneys argued. This was partly because of his late adoptive mother who, defense lawyer Melisa McNeill said, “never really appreciated” what was wrong with him.
“Sometimes,” McNeill said in his own closing argument, “the people who deserve the least amount of compassion and grace and remorse are the ones who should get it.”
In rendering its decision, the jury agreed to the unanimity that the state had proven aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt – and were enough to warrant a possible death sentence.
Ultimately, however, jurors did not unanimously agree that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances, resulting in a recommendation for life in prison and not death.
Three jurors voted against recommending the death sentence, foreman Benjamin Thomas he told CNN affiliate WFOR – a decision he disagreed with, noting: “I don’t like how it turned out, but … that’s how the judicial system works.”
One of the jurors was a “hard ‘no'” who could not vote for death because “he did not believe, because he was mentally illhe should get the death penalty,” Thomas said. Two other jurors joined her.
The woman “did not move” from her position, juror Melody Vanoy told CNN. “Whether we took 10 hours or five days” to deliberate, “it didn’t feel like it was moving in any way.”
Vanoy herself voted for life, telling CNN she was convinced because she “felt the system failed” Cruz repeatedly throughout her life.
Regardless, the outcome did little for the families who had hoped to see Cruz sentenced to death and who, in the hours after the jury’s verdict was read, saw their disappointment turn to anger and confusion as they lashed out. to the decision of the jury.
“I’m disgusted with those jurors,” said Ilan Alhadeff, the father of student victim Alyssa Alhadeff. “I am disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and another 17 shot and wounded, and not receive the death penalty. What do we have the death penalty?
“This shooter deserved no compassion,” Tony Montalto, father of slain 14-year-old Gina Montalto, said outside the courtroom after the jury’s findings were read.
“Did he show compassion for Gina when he put the gun to her chest and chose to pull that trigger, or any of the other three times he shot her?” Was that compassionate?”
Not all relatives of the victims feel this way. Before the end of the process, Robert Schentrup, the brother of the victim Carmen Schentruphe told CNN that he was against the death penalty — in the case of Cruz and everyone else.
“Logically,” he said, “it doesn’t follow to me that we say, ‘Killing someone is this horrible, hideous, terrible, terrible thing, and to prove this point, we’re going to do it to someone.’ other.'”
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