Jurors stared straight ahead or stared at their knees in a South Florida courtroom as their decision to recommend life in prison for Parkland school shooter Nicolas Cruz was read aloud in court Thursday.
The jury wasn’t looking in the direction of the apparently emotional victims’ families, many of whom wanted the gunman to be sentenced to death after the massacre of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
The jury’s decision marks a months-long trial to determine whether Cruz, 24, will receive a life sentence or the death penalty, which will require a unanimous jury decision. A judge is expected to hand down a formal verdict against the gunman on Nov. 1, and the law cannot deviate from the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence.
The deliberations became “nervous” as the jury struggled to reach a conclusion, one jury member wrote in a handwritten letter to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. The jurors who ultimately voted against the death penalty wrote: “Some jurors became very upset once I mentioned that I would vote for life (in prison).”
Ultimately, three of the 12 jurors voted against recommending the death penalty, juror foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR.
“There was one who firmly refused, and she couldn’t. There were two others who ended up voting the same way,” Thomas said. He explained that the woman who firmly refused “doesn’t believe that because he is mentally ill, he should be sentenced to death.”
Several family members of Cruz victims condemned the jury’s decision as a brutal denial of the devastation they were forced to endure.
In making their decision, jurors weighed the aggravating factors proposed by prosecutors against mitigating factors proposed by Cruz’s defense team, which argued that Cruz’s birth and upbringing warranted the mitigation. Cruz’s lawyers portrayed the shooter as a severely “broken” man who suffered from a number of mental and developmental problems that were not adequately treated while he was growing up.
Prosecutors in turn argued that any mitigating factors were overshadowed by what they described as Cruz’s unusually cruel and heinous behavior. They provided detailed evidence to support their claim that Cruz orchestrated and premeditated the attack. Prosecutors put their cases to rest after jurors were taken to tour the still-blooded school building where the massacre took place.
Relatives of the victims were overwhelmed with anger and disbelief after hearing the verdict, with many condemning the decision as insufficient punishment for the huge losses they suffered.
The 14 students killed were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duke Angelo, 14; Nicholas Devoret, 17; Jaime Gutenberg, 14; Luke Ho Yea, 15; Carla Lauren, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alena Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schacht, 14; Carmen Schump, 16; and Peter Wang, 14.
Geography teacher Scott Berger, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hickson, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, were also killed — all running Died towards danger or trying to help students stay safe.
Chris Hickson’s widow, Debra Hickson, told CNN on Thursday that she felt like she had been punched in the chest when she realized the killer would not be sentenced to death.
“What’s most distressing is the belief that any mitigating circumstances could outweigh what he did to our loved ones,” Hickson said, adding, “because it turns out, His life was worth more than those 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 recognition and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing that is necessary in this community,” he told reporters.
But several families insisted the jury’s decision did not bring them peace. The parents of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff said they were “disgusted” by the verdict.
“I’m disgusted by the system where you can allow 17 people to die and 17 people to be shot without the death penalty,” said Alyssa’s father, Ilan Alhadeff. “What do we have the death penalty for?”
The mother of 17-year-old senior Helena Ramsay also condemned the jury’s recommendation.
“After spending months and months listening, hearing testimony, watching the murderer — his composure — I believe justice has not been done,” Anne Ramsay said. “The wrong verdict was made today.”
Many relatives also continued to call for reform of gun policy to prevent the growing reality of gun violence in American schools, including 14-year-old Gina Montalto’s father.
Tony Montalto said: “While this sentence fails to punish perpetrators to the greatest extent possible within the law – it will not prevent us from enabling positive change at the federal, state and local levels to prevent school shooting tragedies from damaging others. The Mission of the American Family.” .
Like Montalto, Hickson was determined not to let the jury’s decision obscure the memory of her loved one, telling CNN she had the final say on the gunman who killed her husband.
“I just want him to know that I’m not going to let him watch me suffer with satisfaction,” she said. “I’m going to cheer up. We will honor Chris every day in a positive way. We’re going to close the door on this and we’ll never think about (the murderer) again.”