Anguished survivors of the Parkland school shooting and grieving relatives of victims confronted the gunman in court before he was sentenced to life in prison, testifying Tuesday about the loved ones and sense of security he stole from them and to the jury’s decision Expressed anger and suggested that he be executed.
“You didn’t know me, but you tried to kill me,” teacher Stacey Lipper told Nicholas Cruz, who appeared in court wearing a red prison jumpsuit, thick glasses and a medical mask. “Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 2:20pm, I was with a different person than the person standing here today. I was broken and changed, and I will never see the world the same way again.”
Many who came forward spoke directly to Cruz, including the widow of victim Christopher Hickson, who told the shooter he was not getting the justice he deserved: “You have been given a gift – a gift of grace and mercy, “You didn’t show any victims something,” Debra Hickson said.
Follow Live Updates: Parkland shooter Nicolas Cruz to be formally sentenced
After a months-long trial to decide whether Cruz deserved the death penalty, a jury recommended that he serve a life sentence without parole for the shooting at a South Florida high school that killed 17 people, in his defense. Lawyers later saved his life arguing he was a deranged psychopath.
Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Sheller must follow the jury’s recommendation — three jurors voted against the death penalty, which must be unanimous in Florida — when she sentenced Cruz, 24, who pleaded guilty to 17 murders last year and 17 attempted murders in the deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. high school, even as the scourge of gun violence on U.S. schools continues.
She is expected to be formally sentenced on Wednesday.
Alyssa Alhadeff’s grandfather, David Robinovitz, called 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff on Tuesday that Cruz was not his name but a “Parkland killer,” saying that while the shooter ” Temporarily won”, but one day he will die.
“Back then, Parkland Murderer, I hoped you would go meet your maker somewhere,” Robin Nowitz said. “And, Parkland Murderer, I hope your maker sends you straight to hell to burn for the rest of your life.”
Anne Ramsay recounted how in the hours after the shooting she waited in a hotel to learn about the fate of her daughter Helena and “listened to all the screams and howls of the other family”.
One by one, families were informed of their loved ones’ deaths, until in the end, only the Ramsays were left, Anne Ramsay said. “Someone came up to us and said, ‘How many families are there?’ There’s only one family. My family.”
Meanwhile, Cruz was in the hospital, she said, being treated. “You were taken care of when our loved ones died.”
Survivor Ben Wikander’s parents share his experience recovering from three gunshot wounds over the past few years. Bree Wikander quoted a trauma surgeon who treated her son as saying his injuries were “similar to those suffered by soldiers in combat”.
“To this day, he is still recovering,” she said. “He continues to limit what he can and cannot do. You will never understand the pain he went through. His life and that of our entire family has been forever changed.”
Survivor Mayor Samantha also shared her own story of recovery through a statement read by her parents. She suffered a gunshot wound to her knee.
“The sound of gunfire actually accompanied me in many ways, beyond my body. It reminded me of the scariest day of my life when I was lying on the floor, unable to move, afraid to speak,” she wrote.
Today, the mayor finds herself in a state of tension, looking for the closet exit in every room she enters, her heart dropping every time she hears a loud bang.
She also worries about her future.
“I’m worried that sending my kids to school one day will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” the mayor wrote, adding of Cruz, “I’m worried that one day he might be freed.”
“Justice has not been served.”
Many Parkland families have testified within days this summer as prosecutors wrap up their death penalty cases, describing the depth of their toll. But according to the father of 14-year-old victim Jaime Guttenberg, one of the 14 students killed, the statements did not include everything the family wanted to say because they had to be reviewed by lawyers on both sides.
“That’s not how we feel,” Fred Gutenberg told CNN last month after the jury’s decision. “We can say whatever we want at the sentencing hearing, including discussing how we feel about this sentence right now.”
The Broward County Attorney’s Office confirmed to CNN in a statement ahead of the hearing that a second round of victim impact testimony will take place within two days. It is unclear how many of them or the victims’ loved ones will take a stand, but there is no time limit and some may testify via video conference.
The state attorney’s office said this week’s victim impact statement does not need to be presented to an attorney in advance.
On Tuesday, the father of victim Alex Schacht expressed his dissatisfaction with the restrictions imposed earlier on the families, calling them “very disturbing”.
“We are forbidden to talk about the murderer, the crime and the punishment he deserves,” Max Schachter said. “We want that creature to be punished.”
Others went further, expressing disappointment at the outcome of the court case.
“He chose to resort to violence,” said Meghan Petty, sister of slain 14-year-old Alaina Petty, “and now he is protected from the same punishment he unnecessarily inflicted on my sister because he was too afraid to accept his gleefully Throwing things.”
Some verbally attacked the gunman’s appointed attorney, and public defender Melissa McNeill eventually objected and reminded the court that all defendants have the right to legal representation in the U.S. judicial system. She said the lashing out at the defense and jurors sent a “message” to the community that if you sat on a jury and delivered a verdict that others disagreed with, “you will be punished and demeaned.”
Prosecutors responded by saying victims’ families were restricted from speaking earlier in the trial, accusing the defence of trying to “limit” their voices – something McNeil disagreed.
Outside court, Broward County public defender Gordon Weeks responded to McNeil’s comments, complaining that some of the testimony was outside the scope of the law.
“Victims can express their loss. They can express their anger. They can express how it affects them and their families. They can direct those emotions toward the defendant, toward the process,” he said.
“But by doing your job implying that you encourage some level of action, that’s not what Marcy’s law is designed to do,” he added, referring to Florida’s aim to provide certain protections to victims of crime and rights, including the right to participate in and be heard at certain hearings. Other states have similar laws.
“It’s not about creating a system that encourages lynching justice. That’s where pain and grief must fit within the boundaries of the law.”
As a result of his guilty plea, Cruz skipped the guilty phase of his trial and went straight to the sentencing phase, where prosecutors seek the death penalty and Cruz-appointed public defenders lobby for life without parole.
To reach their decision, jurors heard months of arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys over aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances — why Cruz should or shouldn’t be executed.
Prosecutors have argued the killings were particularly heinous, brutal or cruel, and backed their case with evidence the gunman spent months orchestrating the shootings, including his online search history showing how he sought information about past mass shootings. messages, as well as comments he left on YouTube, sharing his clear desire to commit mass killings.
But defense lawyers say their client should be sentenced to life in prison, noting that his life’s struggles began even before he was born: They say his biological mother used drugs and alcohol while pregnant with Cruz, leading to a large amount of mental illness and intellectual deficits stemming from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and never adequately addressed.
“Sometimes,” McNeill said in her own closing statement, “deserving the least deserving of sympathy, grace and remorse.”
In reaching its decision, the jury unanimously agreed that the state had demonstrated aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt — sufficient to justify a possible death penalty.
However, jurors ultimately did not unanimously agree that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, and therefore recommended a life sentence rather than the death penalty.
Three jurors voted against recommending the death penalty, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR — he disagreed with the decision, noting: “I didn’t like how it turned out, but … that’s what the jury is about. The way the system works.” One juror, Melody Vanoy, told CNN she was persuaded to vote for life because she “felt the system failed” Cruz repeatedly throughout his life.
But for families hoping to see Cruz sentenced to death, the results did little, their disappointment turning into anger and confusion as they grappled with the decision in the hours after it was read out.
“I was disgusted by those jurors,” said Alyssa’s father, Ilan Alhadeff. “I am disgusted with this system, you can allow 17 people to die and 17 people to be shot without being sentenced to death. What is the use of our death penalty?”