The gunman who killed 17 people at a South Florida high school in 2018 is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Wednesday, bringing to a close an agonizing, months-long trial in which a jury declined to recommend the death penalty.
Nikolas Cruz, 24, will first appear in court with more of his victims before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer formally imposes the sentence recommended last month, an outcome that disappointed and enraged many relatives of those he killed – a sentiment many expressed in victim impact testimony this week.
“It’s heartbreaking that anyone who heard and saw all of this did not give this murderer the harshest punishment possible.” Annika Dworet, the 17-year-old victim Nicholas Dworet’s mother. “As we all know the worst punishment in the state of Florida is the death penalty. How much worse would the crime have to be to warrant the death penalty?”
Following an earlier round of emotional victim impact testimony on Tuesday, many victims’ relatives and some of the shooting’s survivors confronted Cruz, who pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in connection with the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Despite America’s ongoing gun violence epidemic, it is still the deadliest mass shooting at a US high school.
Others who testified Wednesday spoke of their anguish as a result of the shooting, such as Lori Alhadeff, who described going to the medical examiner’s office to see the body of her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa and touching the spots where the gunman had shot her in the hopes of bringing her back to life.
“You robbed Alyssa (of) a lifetime of memories,” she said to the gunman. “Alyssa will never graduate from high school. Alyssa will never go to college, and Alyssa will never play soccer. She will never get married, and she will never have a baby.”
“My hope for you is that you are miserable for the rest of your pathetic life,” Lori Alhadeff added. “My hope for you is that the pain of what you did to my family burns and traumatizes you every day.”
Because the state sought the death penalty, Cruz’s trial proceeded to the sentencing phase, in which a jury was tasked with hearing prosecutors and defense attorneys argue why he should or should not be executed.
The prosecution contended that the shooting was particularly heinous, atrocious, or cruel, and that it was premeditated and calculated. The defense, arguing for life in prison, cited the shooter’s mental or intellectual deficits as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure.
Three jurors were persuaded to vote for life in prison, sparing Cruz the death penalty, which a jury in Florida must unanimously recommend. According to state law, Scherer must follow the jury’s recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The gunman remained emotionless throughout the testimony this week, wearing a red prison jumpsuit and eyeglasses. He also wore a medical mask, which he removed on Wednesday after Jennifer Guttenberg, the 14-year-old victim’s mother, told him it was disrespectful.
“You shouldn’t be sitting there wearing a mask. “It’s disrespectful to be hiding your expressions behind your mask when we, the families, are sitting here talking to you,” she testified. “Sit lower in your seat. Hunched over, attempting to appear innocent when you are not, because you admitted to what you did. And everyone is aware of what you did.”
The gunman then removed his mask, but his expression remained unchanged. 14 of those killed were students, and three were staff members who died while fleeing danger or assisting students to safety.
The life sentence fell short of what many of those Cruz injured and the families of those he killed wished for, with some testifying this week that it indicated the jury gave more weight to his life than the lives of the 17 killed.