Following dramatic statements from victims and victims’ families, a Florida judge formally sentenced Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz to life in prison without parole Wednesday 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 sentencing him to a lifetime behind bars. Last month, in a 9-3 vote, a jury leaned toward sending 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 sought the death penalty, while the defense had asked for life in prison. The jury’s decision on Oct. 13 shook family members of victims who were visibly distraught by the verdict.
During the the three-month penalty trial, the defense argued that Cruz is mentally ill and 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.
Ilan Alhadeff, father of Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, who was killed in the shooting, said Wednesday during his victim impact statement, Cruz’s inevitable life sentence brings him little satisfaction. He deserved death, Alhadeff said.
“Let me show how angry and frustrated I am with the judicial system. After 4 ½ grueling years, a failed judicial system did not hand down a death sentence to the murderer of my daughter and 16 others,” he said. “Do I see this as accountability? Absolutely not. Do we now have closure? Let me be clear, absolutely not. What I see is that the system values this animal’s life over the 17 now dead. Worse, we sent a message to the next killer out there that the death penalty would not be applied to mass killing. This is wrong and needs to be fixed immediately.”
Sam Fuentes was shot in the leg and struck in the face with shrapnel during the massacre. She said Wednesday in court she watched Cruz kill two of her friends.
“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 after you sprayed my classroom with bullets, standing in the door, peering in to see the work you’ve done? Do you remember my little battered, bloody face looking back at you? I could have sworn we locked eyes,” she said.
“I’ll have to live with the aftermath of this for the rest of my life. I’ll always have PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations.”
Fuentes continued: “You gave 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’re not special. You have no power anymore. You’ll step away from this and you’ll have the most unremarkable, pathetic existence, one that I only pray that you suffer.”
Cruz wore a mask for the first part of the hearing, until Jennifer Guttenberg, the mother of victim Jaime Guttenberg, admonished the shooter during her victim impact statement.
“You shouldn’t be sitting there with a mask on your face. It’s disrespectful to be hiding your expressions under your mask when we as the families are sitting here talking to you,” she told him.
Cruz was not wearing a mask the next time the camera panned to his face, though it’s unclear who removed it.
Victoria Gonzalez spoke in court Wednesday about the death of her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver, 17, who was fatally shot by the gunman.
Gonzalez said after the mass shooting, she not only lost her best friend, but her ability to love. She now is lonely and struggles to build real friendships because she’s always looking over her shoulders.
Gonzalez wore Oliver’s shirt when she addressed Cruz and told him he nearly blew his head off.
“I wish that you met Joaquin because he would have been your friend,” Gonzalez said. “He would have extended a hand to you. He would have loved you.”
She added, “I’m sorry that you never saw the love the world is capable of giving.”
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 Wednesday that Cruz has “prison justice” ahead of him.
“You will spend the rest of your miserable life having to look over your shoulder worried about every single minute of your day, of your life, and scared out of your mind, fearful for someone to take you out.”
On Tuesday, other survivors of the shooting and victims’ loved ones had the chance to deliver impact statements before the sentence was formally announced.
Stacey Lippel, a teacher at Parkland who was shot and survived, told Cruz: “You don’t know me but you tried to kill me.”
“I will have a scar on my arm and the memory of you pointing your gun at me ingrained in my brain forever,” she said before the court, looking Cruz in the eyes.
She said she’s left with feelings of horror and guilt.
“Horror at the memories of what you left behind in your wake and the guilt that I am left with because I wish I could’ve done more to save my co-workers and students who you killed,” she said.
Debbi Hixon, the widow of Chris Hixon, a teacher who ran into the school to try to stop the shooter, told the gunman: “I hope that your name and existence are erased from society.”
The parents of Ben Wikander, a student who survived being shot in the back, abdomen and arm, spoke of his agonizing pain and long road to recovery — saying he still has a ways to go.
“Whatever pain you experience in prison will unfortunately be a fraction of what Ben endured,” his father, Eric Wikander, said.
Max Schachter, the father of Parkland victim Alex Schachter, 14, argued that Cruz had received a spate of mental health help and called out the defense lawyers for claiming that he had fallen through the cracks.
“There’s so many people in this country who suffer mental illness,” he said. “They’re not going out torturing and murdering innocent people.”