The gunman who murdered 17 people in 2018 at a South Florida high school is expected to be sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole, bringing to a close an agonizing, monthslong trial in which a jury declined to recommend a death sentence.
Nikolas Cruz, 24, is first facing more of his victims in court before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer formally levies the sentence recommended last month, an outcome that disappointed and angered many relatives of those he killed – a sentiment many voiced in their victim impact testimony this week.
“It is heartbreaking how any person who heard and saw all this did not give this killer the worst punishment possible,” Annika Dworet, the mother of 17-year-old victim Nicholas Dworet, said Wednesday. “As we all know the worst punishment in the state of Florida is the death penalty. How much worse would the crime have to be to warrant the death penalty?”
Wednesday marked the second day of emotional victim impact testimony, following an earlier round Tuesday, when many victims’ relatives and some of the shooting’s survivors confronted Cruz, who pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Despite the continued American gun violence epidemic, it remains the deadliest mass shooting at a US high school.
LIVE UPDATES: Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz to be formally sentenced
Others who testified Wednesday talked about the anguish the shooting had caused them, like Lori Alhadeff, who recounted going to the medical examiner’s office to see the body of her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa and touching the spots where the gunman had shot her, hoping to bring her back to life.
“You robbed Alyssa (of) a lifetime of memories,” she said to the gunman. “Alyssa will never graduate from high school. Alyssa will never go to college, and Alyssa will never play soccer. She will never get married and she will never have a baby.”
“My hope for you is that you are miserable for the rest of your pathetic life,” Lori Alhadeff added. “My hope for you is that the pain of what you did to my family burns and traumatizes you every day.”
The state sought the death penalty, and so Cruz’s trial moved to the sentencing phase, in which a jury was tasked with hearing prosecutors and defense attorneys argue reasons they felt he should or should not be put to death.
The prosecution argued, in part, the shooting was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel and was premeditated and calculated. The defense, pushing for a life sentence, pointed to the shooter’s mental or intellectual deficits they said stemmed from prenatal alcohol exposure.
Three jurors were persuaded to vote for life, sparing Cruz a death sentence, which in Florida a jury must unanimously recommend. Scherer must follow the jury’s recommendation of life without parole, per state law.
Still, the life sentence fell short of what many of those Cruz wounded and the families of those he killed wanted.
“It’s really, really sad. I miss my little boy,” Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, told CNN on Wednesday before the sentencing. “It’s not right that the worst high school shooter in US history basically gets what he wants,” he said, referring to Cruz’s life sentence.
Samantha Fuentes, one of the shooting survivors, faced Cruz Wednesday, reminding him they walked the same hallways and were even in JROTC together.
“We were still children back then,” she said. “I was still a child when I saw you standing in the window, peering into my Holocaust studies class, holding your AR-15 that had swastikas, ironically, scratched into it. I was still a child after I watched you kill two of my friends. I was still a child when you shot me with your gun.”
Fuentes is “angry” about Cruz’s sentence, she said. But unlike him, she said, “I’ll never take my anger, pain and suffering out on others because I am stronger than you. This entire community that stands behind me is stronger than you.”
Of those killed, 14 were students, and three were staff members who perished running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.
The slain students were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, also were killed.
A lot is still unclear about what Cruz’s future will look like. He’ll likely be held in Broward County custody before being handed over to the Florida Department of Corrections and taken to one of several reception centers across the state.
There, Cruz will spend weeks undergoing physical and mental examinations, Florida criminal defense attorney Janet Johnson has told CNN. “They’ll look at his record, they’ll look at the level of crime that he’s convicted of, which is obviously the highest, and they’ll recommend a facility somewhere in the state,” she said.
Which facility is determined by factors including the seriousness of the offense, the length of sentence and the inmate’s prior criminal record, per the Florida State Department of Corrections website. Typically, those convicted of the most serious offenses or with the longest sentences are placed in the most secure facilities, the website says.
Because Cruz is a high-risk offender, he will likely be placed in a prison with other high-profile or “very dangerous criminals,” Johnson said.
“But he wouldn’t be isolated, which of course, is a real threat for him because there may be people who want to do ‘prison justice,’ who didn’t feel that the sentence he got in court was enough,” Johnson added.
The corrections department did not answer CNN’s question about what kind of mental health treatment Cruz may receive while in prison. During the trial, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office released more than 30 pages of writings and drawings by Cruz which revealed disturbing thoughts he has had while in custody, focusing on guns, blood and death.
On one page, Cruz wrote that he wanted to go to death row, while on another he told his family he was sad and hoped to die of a heart attack by taking painkillers and through extreme eating.
As for the victims and their families, the end of the gunman’s trial marks simply the close of one chapter in a lifelong journey with grief.
“I want to put this behind me,” Max Schachter told CNN on Wednesday. “I’m going to court later today. He will be sentenced to life, and I will never think about this murderer again.”