By TERRY SPENCER Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A jury spared Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty Thursday for killing 17 people at a Parkland high school in 2018, sending him to prison for the remainder of his life in a decision that left many families of the victims angered, baffled and in tears.
The jury’s decision came after seven hours of deliberations over two days, ending a three-month trial that included graphic videos and photos from the massacre and its aftermath, heart-wrenching testimony from victims’ family members and a tour of the still blood-spattered building.
“We are beyond disappointed with the outcome today,” Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter, Alyssa, was killed, said at a news conference after the jury’s decision was announced.
“This should have been the death penalty, 100%. Seventeen people were brutally murdered on Feb. 14, 2018. I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome. I cannot understand. I just don’t understand.”
Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote on at least one count. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally issue the life sentences Nov. 1. Relatives, along with the students and teachers Cruz wounded, will be given the opportunity to speak at the sentencing hearing.
Cruz, his hair unkempt, largely sat hunched over and stared at the table as the jury’s recommendations were read. Rumblings grew from the family section — packed with about three dozen parents, spouses and other relatives of the victims — as life sentences were announced. Many shook their heads, looked angry or covered their eyes as the judge spent 50 minutes reading the jury’s decision for each victim. Some parents sobbed as they left court.
The jury found there were aggravating factors to warrant the death penalty for each victim, however, they also found mitigating factors. And the jury could not agree that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones.
Tony Montalto, father of Gina Montalto, said: “How can the mitigating factors make this shooter, who they recognized committed this terrible act — acts, plural — shooting, some victims more than once on a pass, pressing the barrel of his weapon to my daughter’s chest — that doesn’t outweigh that poor little what’s-his-name had a tough upbringing?”
“Our justice system should have been used to punish this shooter to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Montalto, president of Stand With Parkland, the group that represents most of the families and other relatives, also said the decision would do nothing to deter another person from gunning down multiple people in a school.
Michael Schulman, the stepfather of teacher Scott Beigel, said the decision gives anyone a license to kill, then claim mental illness as a defense. “This animal deserves to die. He hunted all of these people,” Schulman said. “He planned it for months.”
As he spoke to the media, Schulman held up a laptop with an image of Cruz in the school hallway with a gun. “The last thing my son saw was the gunman aiming at him,” he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed with the families, saying it “stings” that Cruz will not receive the death penalty.
In a case like this, “where you’re massacring those students with premeditation in utter disregard for basic humanity … I just don’t think anything else is appropriate except a capital sentence,” DeSantis said.
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to murdering 14 students and three staff members and wounding 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz said he chose Valentine’s Day to make it impossible for Stoneman Douglas students to celebrate the holiday ever again.
The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting that has ever gone to trial in the U.S. Nine other people in the U.S. who fatally shot at least 17 people died during or immediately after their attacks by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.
Lead prosecutor Mike Satz kept his case simple for the seven-man, five-woman jury. He focused on Cruz’s eight months of planning, the seven minutes he stalked the halls of a three-story classroom building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, and his escape.
He played security videos of the shooting and showed gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos. Teachers and students testified about watching others die. He took the jury to the fenced-off building, which remains blood-stained and bullet-pocked.
Cruz’s lead attorney Melisa McNeill and her team never questioned the horror he inflicted, but focused on their belief that his birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy left him with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Their experts said his bizarre, troubling and sometimes violent behavior starting at age 2 was misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, meaning he never got the proper treatment. That left his widowed adoptive mother overwhelmed, they said.
The defense cut its case short, calling only about 25 of the 80 witnesses they said would testify. They never brought up Cruz’s high school years or called his younger half-brother, Zachary, whom they accused of bullying.
In rebuttal, Satz and his team contended that Cruz did not suffer from fetal alcohol damage but has antisocial personality disorder — in lay terms, he’s a sociopath.
Their witnesses said Cruz faked brain damage during testing and that he was capable of controlling his actions, but chose not to. For example, they pointed to his employment as a cashier at a discount store where he never had any disciplinary issues.
Prosecutors also played numerous video recordings of Cruz discussing the crime with their mental health experts where he talked about his planning and motivation.
The defense alleged on cross-examination that Cruz was sexually molested and raped by a 12-year-old neighbor when he was 9.