FORT LAUDERDALE — Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will sentence Nikolas Cruz to life in prison this week for killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018
Jurors voted to spare Cruz’s life in October, a decision that was met with dismay and disgust by the victims’ family members. Many are expected to speak Tuesday and Wednesday before Scherer passes the sentence.
While jurors found that the aggravating factors like Cruz’s cold and calculated behavior were sufficient to warrant a possible death penalty, at least one believed they were outweighed by mitigating circumstances, like Cruz’s plight with mental illness.
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Their decision comes more than four years after the Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida — the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history — and concludes the nearly three-monthlong trial.
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Anthony Montalto III, whose sister Gena was shot and killed in the first-floor hallway of the Stoneman Douglas freshman building, was the second-to-last speaker of the day. He derided the portrait that Cruz’s defense team painted of a young man doomed by his biological mother’s substance abuse.
He isn’t a victim, Montalto said. He’s a “murdering bastard” who should have been made an example of for any would-be shooters looking to follow in his footsteps.
“He shouldn’t live while my sister rots in the grave,” Montalto finished.
Tony Montalto, Gena’s father, followed his son. He said the jurors who voted to spare the gunman’s life were “selfish and misguided.” Did they consider what message they were sending to school children across America? he asked.
He suggested it’s time for lawmakers to strike jury unanimity from the state’s sentencing statute. In Cruz’s case, three of 12 jurors refused to sentence him to death. Just one was needed to derail prosecutors’ push for the death penalty, which must be recommended unanimously.
Scherer ripped into Cruz’s team of public defenders after they asked her again to tamp down the animosity they’re feeling from victims’ family members.
Scherer said the majority of the comments made Tuesday were appropriate, and that the best course of action was to ignore any that weren’t.
“Sit down and move on,” she said.
The answer didn’t sit right with Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler.
“For them to comment on my children is highly improper — ” Wheeler said, before Scherer cut him off. She said she doesn’t remember any statements about the defense attorney’s children.
“If they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice it,” Wheeler said.
After a split-second pause, Scherer dismissed Wheeler, her voice rising as he walked to the back of the courtroom.
“To try to threaten my children, and bring up my children, is inappropriate,” she said. Wheeler’s boss, Gordon Weekes, tried to defend the attorney but was shot down just as quickly.
That tongue lashing was reminiscent of an earlier moment in the trial, when Scherer laid into lead defender Melisa McNeill for other perceived slights throughout the trial.
Shooting survivor Samantha Mayor described the fear that’s haunted her each day since Cruz shot her in the knee on the floor of her Stoneman Douglas classroom. She’s afraid of tight spaces, reactive to loud noises and constantly transported “into a state of pure terror.”
“I’m so terrified to be in another shooting,” she wrote in a statement read aloud to Cruz. “I bet that doesn’t happen to most people.”
Mayor fears sending her own children to school one day. Just a glance at the gunshot wound on her kneecap reminds her of the frenzied ambulance ride to the hospital, and the grim acceptance that she would die. When she didn’t, she asked a SWAT member nearby to text her mother that she was alive.
The last text Helena Ramsay sent her own mother was a smiley-face emoji. Racial disparity tainted her daughter’s life as it did her death, Anne Ramsay told Cruz on Tuesday.
Helena was gifted but overlooked by the school system, she said. Upon being shot to death, her parents were the last of the victims’ families to be told the news.
They spent hours searching nearby hospitals for Helena, who they’d been told was injured. At the last hospital they searched, law enforcement told them to go instead to the Marriot Hotel, where other families had gathered.
“They knew our daughter had died,” Ramsay said. Her own family wouldn’t learn until 3 a.m.
“We were waiting there for hours, and hours, and hours, listening to the screams and the howling of all the other families,” Anne said, as one by one, each learned the news. By the end, there was only one family left.
“My family,” Ramsay said. “The Black family.”
This is how Black people are treated, she finished. If Cruz were Black, she doesn’t think he would have made it past the gate of the school.
Max Schachter, whose son Alex bled to death at his desk, said he’s sickened by Cruz’s team of defense attorneys. Cruz hunted down children and staff, he said, tortured them, “blew their heads apart like a water balloon.”
“That creature has no redeemable value,” he said. How could he not deserve the death penalty?
His attitude toward the defense echoes that of family members who spoke before him. Once Schachter returned to his seat, Cruz’s lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill objected to the sentiment.
“I did my job, and every member of this team did their jobs,” she told the judge. “And we should not personally be attacked for that.”
Everyone facing a criminal charge under the U.S. justice system is entitled to a defense. That defense must be robust and, in cases like Cruz, seek to spare a person’s life from the ultimate penalty.
McNeill asked Scherer to preclude the victims’ families from threatening the defense team and their loved ones. Carolyn McCann, a prosecutor, called the request a breach of victims’ rights.
“The victims have every right to express themselves,” she said. “What the defense is doing is illegal, to try to curtail these victims’ rights under the law, and it is unconscionable.”
Many of these families delivered impact statements earlier in the trial, but the nature of those were different than Tuesday’s. They had to adhere to strict rules and be approved ahead of time. Today’s statements were not vetted first, McCann said, as is each victim’s right at this stage in the trial.
The judge made note of McNeill’s objection but did not ask upcoming speakers to amend their statements, as the defense attorney had asked.
Prayers for torment and torture during the gunman’s prison sentence were common among the families’ statements. None said they could fathom three jurors’ decision to spare his life.
If the worst mass shooter to go to trial doesn’t deserve execution, who does? asked Patricia Oliver, the mother of Joaquin Oliver. Joaquin was among those who flooded out of their third-floor classrooms at the sound of the fire alarm, only to meet Cruz at the end of the hall.
Jurors showed more compassion to the gunman than he did her son, Joaquin’s mother said. She was the first to address the gunman’s team of public defenders, who she said exhibited “shameful, despicable behavior.”
Evil is in Cruz’s system, Oliver said, so it’s in theirs now, too. She’s beyond feeling anger — all she has now is emptiness and grief.
“I am broken,” Oliver said, and she pointed to her son’s killer and to each of his attorneys. “I am broken,” point. “I am broken,” point. “I am broken.”
She thought the devil didn’t exist until death put him in front of her, Oliver said. Joaquin’s sister put her head in her hands as her mother described the splatter of Joaquin’s blood in the halls of Stoneman Douglas.
She wished bad karma, sleepless nights and regret on all those who defended Cruz. Tom Hoyer, whose son Luke was shot to death in the first-floor hallway, fist-bumped Patricia as she returned to her seat in the courtroom gallery.
Meghan Petty, whose 14-year-old sister Alaina was killed, said the gunman has gotten everything he wanted — save for three more victims (his goal, he said, was 20). Alaina died afraid, hiding behind a desk on a dirty classroom floor with a bullet in her heart.
Cruz fired 139 rounds of ammunition, Petty said, during his rampage at Stoneman Douglas. That’s 138 chances after his first bullet to stop. He could’ve stopped after the first classroom, she said, after the first floor, the first magazine. He didn’t until 17 were dead, and the remaining students had fled.
Their deaths don’t matter “because his life wasn’t cupcakes, rainbows and sunshine,” Petty said. He’ll spend the rest of his life with a roof over his head, while Petty spends hers with Alaina’s body beneath her feet.
Debra Hixon addressed her husband’s killer directly.
“I wish nothing for you today,” she said. “After today, I don’t care what happens to you.”
Cruz was masked and unblinking. He shot Chris Hixon, the Stoneman Douglas athletic director who confronted him on the first floor of the freshman building, then circled back and shot him again once Hixon crawled into an alcove in the hallway for cover.
People are born looking like their parents, and they die looking like their decisions, Hixon’s sister, Natalie Hixson, told the gunman. Her brother died a hero, she said.
Theresa Robinovitz, Alyssa Alhadeff’s grandmother, said she has an idea for how the gunman might spend his life in prison: Write a book about how he and his defense counsel “beat the judicial system and got away with murder.”
How could the slaying of 17 people not warrant the death penalty? she asked.
“I hope your ever-breathing moment here on Earth is miserable,” she said. “Repent for your sins, Nikolas. And burn in hell.”
Many of the families looked as though they’re dressed for a funeral. Alyssa’s grandfather, David Robinovitz, made a point to not address the gunman by name, calling him instead “Parkland murderer.”
When the gunman dies, the grandfather said, he hopes his ashes are thrown into a landfill.
“You know why?” he asked. “Because garbage to garbage.”
Stoneman Douglas teacher Stacey Lippel has a scar on her arm and the memory of the gunman aiming at her on Feb. 14, 2018. She’s a different person now, she said. Broken and altered, fearful, damaged, guilted, sad.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that horrible day,” she said.
Lippel held her classroom door open and shepherded students inside while the gunman fired at them from the end of the hall. The judge thanked her before she stepped away from the podium.
“You were a hero to those children that day,” Scherer said.
Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
http://rssfeeds.floridatoday.com/~/718101300/0/brevard/news~Burn-in-hell-Survivors-parents-confront-gunman-during-Nikolas-Cruz-sentencing-hearing/ No death penalty for Nik Cruz, no restraint in victim impact statements