As jurors previously recommended, a judge sentenced Nikolas Jacob Cruz, 24, to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Wednesday.
The penalty phase verdict last month disgusted the victims’ families and survivors. The jury fell short of the unanimous votes necessary to sentence Cruz to death, thereby sparing his life for attacking Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018 and murdering 17 people that Valentine’s Day.
The slain victims were: 14-year-old student Alyssa Alhadeff, 35-year-old teacher Scott Beigel, 14-year-old student Martin Duque Anguiano, 17-year-old student Nicholas Dworet, 37-year-old assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 14-year-old student Jaime Guttenberg, 49-year-old athletic director Christopher Hixon, 15-year-old student Luke Hoyer, 14-year-old student Cara Loughran, 14-year-old student Gina Montalto, 17-year-old student Joaquin Oliver, 14-year-old student Alaina Petty, 18-year-old student Meadow Pollack, 17-year-old student Helena Ramsay, 14-year-old student Alexander Schachter, 16-year-old student Carmen Schentrup, and 15-year-old student Peter Wang.
Judge is formally sentencing the #ParklandShooter. She reads each count with the victim’s name. pic.twitter.com/msWRWbjntW
— Cathy Russon (@cathyrusson) November 2, 2022
Cruz pleaded guilty last year, but prosecutors refused to budge on seeking a death sentence. This paved the way for the penalty phase, where jurors heard evidence that the defendant plotted the attack and executed it to cause maximum physical and emotional harm. It’s why he chose Valentine’s Day as the date — to ruin the holiday for everyone. It’s why he returned to victims he had already shot so he could shoot them again.
“Hello, my name is Nik,” Cruz said in a Feb. 11, 2018 video in his cell phone. He said he was going to be the next school shooter of 2018, planning to kill at least 20 people. He said it was going to be a big event. “You’re all going to die. Oh, yeah. I can’t wait.”
Jurors also heard evidence of Cruz’s rocky family life. His biological mother Brenda Woodard abused drugs and alcohol while he was in her womb. The defense maintained he received inconsistent support and help growing up.
The victims’ families scoffed at the notion that Cruz wasn’t helped.
“Altogether, he had well over 200 individual sessions with mental health professionals,” Alexander Schachter’s father Max Schachter said in a victim impact statement on Tuesday. “Does that sound like somebody that fell off the grid? They tried everything. They couldn’t have given him more services. Over the course of his life, starting at a very young age, he received more than most kids in America will every receive.”
During the penalty phase, prosecutor Michael Satz highlighted testimony from forensic psychology and neuropsychology expert Dr. Robert L. Denney that Cruz did not have any neurocognitive deficits.
“The defendant and I are the same age,” Alaina Petty’s sister Meghan Petty said. “And I can say for a fact that at the time he murdered Alaina, he was old enough and mentally aware enough to understand the permanence of death, what that meant. He understood how much it hurt from his own personal experiences, and he fully understood what the consequences would be for murdering someone, yet he chose to do it anyway.”
Ultimately, the defense won out.
“Your defense preyed on the idea of your humanity,” Christopher Hixon’s son Thomas Hixon said on Tuesday. “Yet you had none for those that you encountered on Feb. 14.”
Cruz, who did not speak at the sentencing hearing, stole lives and futures not only from the victims, but also, in a way, from their loved ones. Survivors, too, have to contend with the scars of that day.
Cruz’s schoolmate Sam Fuentes, who was injured in the attack, said she suffered from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations.
“Speaking of suicide, three students killed themselves because of what you did,” she said. “Now, to speak quite frankly, not only do I want to kill myself sometimes, I live in constant fear of someone exactly like you will finish off the job you failed to do by not killing me. You gave me and many others like me a life time of trauma, pain, and suffering long as you committed this crime. And for what? You are nobody now. You’re not special.”
Most who spoke at the sentencing hearing and after the penalty phase verdict voiced outrage and disgust that Cruz was allowed to live out his life behind bars. To merely say that they hate him fails to convey the scope of grief and loss they shared in court.
“Alyssa was the heartbeat of our family,” said Alhadeef’s mother Lori Alhadeef on Wednesday.
Victoria Gonzalez, Joaquin Oliver’s girlfriend, showed up to court wearing a shirt Oliver had on the night before the attack. It was a shirt that read, in Spanish, “You with bullets. I with balls.” It was yellow with a design of a black bulletproof vest.
“This is my protection,” she said. “This is Joaquin with me.”
She said later that she wished Cruz met Oliver.
“I wish, I wish, I wish that you met Joaquin because he would’ve been your friend,” she said. “He would’ve extended a hand to you. He would’ve loved you, and I say that, and whoever’s going to be upset with me is going to be upset with me, but he would’ve loved you as a human being. Because you are a human being, and I’m going to say that. And I know a lot of people won’t say that. But you are a real life human being in front of me.”
Though expressing that compassion, she nonetheless highlighted the horrifying nature of Oliver’s death. She said she learned that his head was held on only by the skin of his scalp. She quoted that it was like a “cherry bomb” went off in his skull.
“And I will live with that,” she said. “And you will live with that in a different way.”
[Screenshot via Law&Crime Network]
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