A South Florida judge formally sentenced the gunman who killed 17 people – including 14 students – at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 to life in prison on Wednesday, after two days of victim statements from anguished families and survivors, many of whom expressed outrage that the shooter was not given the death penalty.
A jury last month spared gunman Nikolas Cruz the death penalty after failing to reach a unanimous verdict as required under Florida law. Broward County Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth A. Scherer could not change the jury’s decision, sentencing Cruz to life in prison without parole on 34 counts, with the sentences to be served consecutively.
“If I could take your pain away or carry your pain for just five minutes so you could breathe, I would,” Scherer told the families in the courtroom. “I can’t even imagine what you go through each day.”
Before the sentencing, the victims’ families offered statements grieving their loved ones and criticizing the justice system for failing to deliver the death penalty. Anger spilled over from parents and friends who spoke directly to Cruz as he sat impassively at a table a few feet away from them. Jennifer Guttenberg, the mother of 14-year-old victim Jaime, said Cruz was being disrespectful by “hiding” behind a blue surgical mask. Cruz then took it off.
Guttenberg, like several others, read names of those who died in the massacre.
“I don’t ever want to hear the killer’s name again,” Guttenberg said.
The judge’s official sentencing marks the end of a three-month trial to determine how Cruz, 24, should be punished after pleading guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. His case was the deadliest U.S. mass shooting case to ever go to trial.
From the start, there have been concerns about the trauma victims and loved ones would be forced to relive. But several victims said this week that they wanted to finally speak to Cruz directly, free from the constraints they were under during the trial.
Samantha Fuentes, a classmate who was shot by Cruz, reminded him they were in JROTC together.
“We were still children back then. I was still a child when I saw you standing at the window, peering into my Holocaust Studies class, holding your AR15, that had swastikas, ironically, scratched into it,” Fuentes said, looking at Cruz. “After I watched you kill my friends, I was still a child. When you shot me with your gun, you shot me in the leg. If you looked me in the face like I’m looking at you right now, you would see the scars on it from the hot shrapnel that was lodged into it. … Do you remember my little battered, bloody face looking back at you? I could have sworn we locked eyes.”
The decision to let Cruz live the remainder of his life in a Florida prison has become a campaign talking point, with both Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, saying Cruz should have been sentenced to death. Some relatives and lawmakers have since called for the state to amend its death penalty statute. A 2016 Supreme Court ruling forced Florida to rewrite its capital punishment law to require that death sentences be unanimous.
Families also chastised the defense team and the law that resulted in the life sentence.
“After 4 1/2 grueling years of a failed judicial system to not hand down a death sentence to the murder of my daughter and 16 others, do I see this as accountability? Absolutely not. Do we now have closure? Let me be clear: absolutely not,” said Ilan Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed. “What I see is that the system values this animal’s life over the 17 now dead.”
“I will be 70 (on) my next birthday in February. I hope for my birthday I get word that you are dead, that the justice system was done in jail,” said Michael Schulman, whose son, Scott Beigel, a geography teacher and cross-country coach at the school, was killed as he protected students. “I hope your death is slow and agonizing.”
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