In a South Florida courtroom, jurors stared straight ahead or gazed into their laps as their decision to recommend a lifelong prison sentence for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was read aloud in court on Thursday.
The group of jurors didn’t look in the direction of visibly emotional victims’ families, many of whom hoped the shooter would receive the death penalty after he pleaded guilty to massacring 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
The jury’s decision punctuates a monthslong trial to determine whether Cruz, 24, would be sentenced to life in prison or be handed the death penalty, which would have required a unanimous decision from the jury. The judge is expected to issue the gunman’s formal sentence on November 1 and by law is unable to deviate from the jury’s recommendation of life.
The deliberations became “tense” as jurors worked toward a conclusion, one jury member wrote in a handwritten letter to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. The juror, who ultimately voted against the death penalty, wrote that “some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned that I would vote for life (in prison).”
Ultimately, three of the 12 jurors voted against recommending the death sentence, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR.
“There was one with a hard ‘no,’ she couldn’t do it. And there was another two that ended up voting the same way,” said Thomas. He explained that the woman who was a hard no “didn’t believe because he was mentally ill he should get the death penalty.”
Several family members of Cruz’s victims decried the jury’s decision as a cruel denial of the devastation that they have been forced to live with.
When making their decision, jurors weighed the aggravating factors presented by prosecutors against mitigating circumstances laid out by Cruz’s defense team, who argued that aspects of his birth and upbringing warranted a lesser punishment. Cruz’s attorneys painted the shooter as a severely “broken” person who suffers from a number of mental and developmental issues that were not adequately treated when he was growing up.
Prosecutors in turn argued that any mitigating factors were overshadowed by what they described as Cruz’s exceptionally cruel and heinous acts. They presented detailed evidence to support their claims that Cruz carefully planned and premeditated the attack. The prosecution rested their case after jurors were taken to tour the still blood-stained school building where the massacre occurred.
Victims’ loved ones were overwhelmed with rage and disbelief after hearing the verdict and many denounced the decision as inadequate punishment given the extraordinary losses they have suffered.
The 14 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, 14.
Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, were also killed – each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.
Chris Hixon’s widow, Debra Hixon, told CNN Thursday that when she realized the killer wouldn’t receive the death penalty, she felt like she had been punched in the chest.
“What hurts the most is that there is a belief that any mitigating circumstances could outweigh what he did to our loved ones,” Hixon said, adding, “Because the way it comes out is that his life has more value than those that were murdered.”
Public defender Gordon Weekes urged the community to respect the jury’s decision.
“This day is not a day of celebration, but a day of solemn acknowledgment, and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing that is necessary for this community,” he told reporters.
But several families were insistent that the jury’s decision does not deliver them peace. The parents of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff said they were “disgusted” by the verdict.
“I’m disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded, and not get the death penalty,” Alyssa’s father, Ilan Alhadeff, said. “What do we have the death penalty for?”
The mother of Helena Ramsay, a 17-year-old senior, also denounced the jury’s recommendation.
“After spending months and months listening, and hearing testimonies, and looking at the murderer – his composure – I believe justice was not done,” Anne Ramsay said. “The wrong verdict was given out today.”
Many loved ones also continued their plea for gun policy reform to prevent the growing reality of gun violence in American schools, including the father of 14-year-old Gina Montalto.
“While this sentence fails to punish the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law – it will not stop our mission to effect positive change at a federal, state and local level to prevent school shooting tragedies from shattering other American families,” Tony Montalto said.
Like Montalto, Hixon is determined not to let the jury’s decision overshadow her loved one’s memory, telling CNN that she has final words for the shooter who killed her husband.
“I just want him to know that I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of watching me suffer,” she said. “I’m going to pick myself up. We’re going to honor Chris every day in positive ways. And we’re going to shut the door on this and we’re never going to think about (the killer) again.”