At a charged two-day sentencing hearing in Florida four years ago, relatives of the 17 people who were killed in a shooting at a high school in that state confronted the gunman. They were filled with rage, disappointment, and grief, and they repeatedly denounced the criminal justice system for sparing his life. The hearing lasted for two days.
Parents, siblings, and children of victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 talked directly to Nikolas Cruz, the 24-year-old gunman, for the first time since the tragedy. The attack took place in February 2018. The prosecution had requested that the defendant be executed; however, a jury’s deliberations, following an intense three-month trial, resulted in the recommendation that the defendant be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of release. The verdict came as a surprise to the relatives of the victims, who had suffered through the ordeal of the trial with the expectation that it would result in the death penalty.
Mr. Cruz was given a sentence of 34 consecutive life terms in prison by Judge Elizabeth A. Scherer on Wednesday. The sentences are one for each of the 17 victims he killed and the 17 persons he injured in the shooting.
The relatives of those who were murdered addressed the court and expressed their hope that Mr. Cruz would suffer both during his time behind bars and at the end of his life. Arguments made by his defence attorneys, who claimed that his brain had been affected since birth because his biological mother drank while she was pregnant, were dismissed by some.
She was standing behind a lectern with her back to Mr. Cruz, who was seated next to his attorneys wearing a medical mask and a crimson prison jumpsuit. He was gazing at each speaker in turn. He did not speak for himself in front of the judge and the jury. When he entered a guilty plea the previous year, he apologised to the court.
A sentence of life in prison, as opposed to execution, implies that Mr. Cruz will not be able to return to court to appeal his case in any way. On Tuesday, Debra Hixon, whose husband Christopher Hixon, 49 years old, was an athletic director at the school and was slain in the shooting, informed Mr. Cruz that she planned to never think of him again. This was a subtle recognition of the finality of the situation. Christopher Hixon was dead.
A couple of the speakers pleaded with the state legislature to remove the requirement that the jury must be unanimous in order to carry out the death penalty. Prior to the year 2016, Florida was one of just three states that permitted jurors to recommend capital punishment with a mere 7-to-5 majority. In 2017, Republican Rick Scott, who was serving as governor at the time, gave his signature making the necessity for unanimous consent a law.
On the other hand, in the year 2020, the state’s highest court, which had moved to the right, declared that a recommendation from all justices was no longer required. There were no amendments made to the statute by the legislators. However, following the announcement that Mr. Cruz will be serving a life sentence, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has stated that he would like the Legislature to reconsider the statute.
Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina Montalto, who was 14 years old at the time of her death, was murdered, pleaded with politicians to enable a simple majority or a supermajority jury vote for the death penalty.
Max Schachter, whose son Alex Schachter, 14, was murdered, stated that he would also campaign for jurors to be permitted to include statements from victims’ relatives in the course of their deliberations. Alex Schachter was 14 years old. During the course of the trial, which lasted for four days, family expressed, in most intimate terms, how the deaths of their loved ones broke their lives. However, the court was obligated to inform the jurors that those words could not be taken into consideration as evidence in arriving at their decision.
A significant number of the speakers claimed that the jury, which consisted of seven males and five women, had erred against them. In the interviews that were conducted with the jurors after they had made their recommendation a month ago, it was discovered that one of the jurors had stated during the proceedings that she could not inflict a death sentence on someone who she believed to be mentally ill. The final decision was 9-3 in favour of the death penalty, with two more jurors opting to save the defendant’s life.
Melisa McNeill, the assistant public defender who was in charge of the case, raised an objection. She said that the statements made about the jurors, defence counsel, and their families were inappropriate and that the Constitution guarantees an opportunity for the accused to present a defence.
After that, the top public defender in Broward County, Gordon Weekes, pleaded with Judge Scherer to beg the prosecuting attorneys and the families of the victims to tone down their rhetoric. He was referring to the recent outbreak of political violence that has occurred across the country.
That sparked an angry reaction from one of the prosecutors, as well as from the judge, who engaged in a number of heated exchanges with the defence attorneys during the trial.
On Wednesday, Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was shot eight times, stated that if it meant saving her daughter’s life, she would have been willing to take all eight bullets herself. Alyssa was wounded eight times.