After dramatic statements from victims and victims’ families, a Florida judge on Wednesday formally sentenced school shooter Nikolas Cruz in Parkland to life without parole for the 2018 campus massacre that killed 14 students and three staff members.
Circuit judge Elizabeth Scherer followed the jury’s recommendation to spare the 24-year-old the death penalty, instead sentenced him to life in prison. Last month, on a 9-3 vote, a jury tended to send Cruz to death row, but Florida law dictates that anything less than a unanimous vote automatically shifts the sentence to life without parole.
Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty, while the defense had demanded life. The jury’s decision on Oct. 13 shocked relatives of victims who were visibly distraught by the verdict.
‘They are not forgotten’
On Wednesday, Scherer told victims and their loved ones that she admired their strength before convicting Cruz of a total of 34 murders or attempted murder.
“Thank you family members for the privilege of learning about all of your loved ones. I can tell you they won’t be forgotten,” Scherer said. “If I could take the pain away or carry it for you for just five minutes so you could breathe… I would.”
As Scherer read her conviction on each of the nearly three dozen charges, most of the victims or their relatives were stoic, while some cried tears. Cruz remained expressionless.
During the three-month criminal trial, the defense argued that Cruz is mentally ill and that his condition led him to the 2018 Valentine’s Day rampage in which he wielded a semi-automatic rifle at his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder in October 2021.
‘You have given me and many others a lifetime of trauma, pain and suffering’
Ilan Alhadeff, the father of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, who was killed in the shooting, said in his victim statement on Wednesday that Cruz’s inevitable life sentence brings him little satisfaction. He deserved to die, Alhadeff said.
“Show me how angry and frustrated I am at the judiciary. After 4 ½ grueling years, a failing judicial system has not handed down a death sentence for my daughter’s killer and 16 others,” he said. “Do I see this as a responsibility? Absolutely not. Do we have closure now? Let me be clear, absolutely not. What I see is that the system values the life of this animal over the 17 that are now dead. Worse, we sent a message to the next killer that the death penalty would not be applied to mass murder. This is wrong and must be fixed immediately.”
Sam Fuentes was shot in the leg and hit in the face with shrapnel during the massacre. She said in court on Wednesday that she saw Cruz kill two of her friends.
“You shot me in the leg. If you looked me in the face, the way I look at you now, you’d see the scars on it from the hot shrapnel trapped inside. Remember when you sprayed my classroom with bullets, stood in the door and peered in to see the work you’ve done? Do you remember my little battered, bloodied face looking back at you? I could have sworn we were watching each other,” she said.
“I will have to live with the consequences of this for the rest of my life. I will always have PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.”
Fuentes continued: “You have given me and many others a lifetime of trauma, pain and suffering long after you committed this crime and for what? You’re nobody now. You are not special. You have no more power. If you renounce this, you will have the most unremarkable, pathetic existence, a life I only pray you suffer.”
Cruz wore a mask for the first part of the hearing, until Jennifer Guttenberg, the mother of victim Jaime Guttenberg, admonished the gunman during her victim statement.
“You shouldn’t sit there with a mask on your face. It’s disrespectful to hide your facial expressions under your mask when we as families are sitting here talking to you,” she told him.
Cruz wasn’t wearing a mask the next time the camera went to his face, though it’s unclear who removed it.
Victoria Gonzalez spoke in court on Wednesday about the death of her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver, 17, who was fatally shot by the gunman.
Gonzalez said after the mass shooting that she not only lost her best friend, but also her ability to love. She is lonely now and struggling to build real friendships because she is always looking behind her back.
Gonzalez was wearing Oliver’s shirt when she approached Cruz and told him he nearly blew his head off.
“I wish you had met Joaquin, because he would have been your friend,” Gonzalez said. “He would have reached out to you. He would have loved you.’
She added: “I’m sorry you never saw the love the world can give.”
Linda Beigel Schulman, mother of Scott Beigel, who taught geography at the school and coached cross country, said her son saved students’ lives before the gunman took his.
Beigel Schulman said on Wednesday that Cruz has “prison law” ahead of him.
“You’re going to have to look over your shoulder for the rest of your miserable life, worried about every minute of your day, of your life, and scared out of your head, afraid someone will take you out.”
“You don’t understand me now, but you tried to kill me”
On Tuesday, other shooting survivors and loved ones of the victims were given the chance to make impact statements.
Stacey Lippel, a Parkland teacher who was shot and survived, told Cruz, “You don’t know me, but you tried to kill me.”
“I’ll have a scar on my arm and the memory of you pointing your gun at me will be etched in my mind forever,” she said in court, looking Cruz in the eye.
She said she was left with feelings of horror and guilt.
“Horror at the memories of what you left in your wake and the guilt I leave behind because I wish I could have done more to save my colleagues and students you killed,” she said.
Debbi Hixon, the widow of Chris Hixon, a teacher who ran into the school to try to stop the gunman, told the gunman, “I hope your name and existence is erased from society.”
The parents of Ben Wikander, a student who survived the gunshot wounds to the back, abdomen and arm, spoke of his aching pain and long road to recovery — and said he still has a long way to go.
“Unfortunately, the pain you experience in prison will be a fraction of what Ben endured,” said his father, Eric Wikander.
Max Schachter, the father of Parkland victim Alex Schachter, 14, claimed that Cruz had received a wave of mental health aid and called defense lawyers for claiming he had fallen through the cracks.
“There are so many people in this country who suffer from mental illness,” he said. “They’re not going to torture and kill innocent people.”