At an emotional hearing Nov. 1, families of the 17 people killed in the Parkland high school mass shooting began addressing the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, before his sentencing. The hearing is their final opportunity to address the court during the trial and to speak directly to Cruz. Statements will continue through Nov. 2.
Last month, a Florida jury recommended life in prison for Cruz for 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three staff members dead. Cruz pleaded guilty to the charges last year.
At the sentencing hearing, several witnesses expressed anger that Cruz been spared the death penalty, saying it sets a bad example for other potential mass shooters. “He gets daily meals, a roof over his head, and a bed to sleep in,” said Meghan Petty, whose younger sister Alaina was killed. Meanwhile, she said, her 14-year-old sister’s body rots underground. “Her roof is six feet of dirt, and her bed is a coffin.”
Throughout the statements, Cruz sat alongside his defense attorneys in an orange prison uniform, his hands cuffed in front of him. He observed the proceedings from behind huge, thick glasses. A blue surgical mask covered the lower half of his face, his expression unreadable.
Ines Hixon described being deployed with the military on an aircraft carrier in Iran at the time of the shooting. Her father-in-law, the high school’s athletic director Chris Hixon, was killed when he ran into the building to try to stop the gunman. Hixon spoke while clasping her husband’s hand. “As a service member, I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” she said. “And to the defendant, that’s exactly what I view you as — a domestic terrorist….I wish no peace for you. I wish nothing but pain. And I hope that every breath you take, you remember that’s a breath you stole.”
Petty pointed out that she was the same age as Cruz, and shared that she’d been bullied as a child, but had never resorted to violence. Now, as she saw it, Cruz’s life was being spared because he’d had a tough childhood where “his life was’t cupcakes, rainbows, and sunshine.”
During the trial, Cruz’s defense had argued that he was mentally ill, in part because his biological mother had consumed alcohol and drugs while she was pregnant with him. “His brain is broken,” lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill said during her opening statement. “He’s a damaged human being.”
At the sentencing hearing, victims’ parents made clear in their anguished statements that they disagreed. “You can’t fix evil,” said Max Schachter, the father of slain 14-year-old Alexander Schachter. He said there are children in foster homes without families and children with abusive parents, but that Cruz was neither. Cruz’s adoptive mother, Linda Cruz, did everything she could for him, Schachter argued, echoing evidence that had been presented during the trial of the therapeutic interventions and specialized learning plans Cruz had been given throughout his childhood. Schachter also noted that Nov. 1 marked his birthday, and that his wish would always be for Cruz to “suffer a painful violent death.”
Anne Ramsay recounted sitting in a Marriott hotel, listening to the “howling” of other families, as she waited to hear the fate of her daughter, Helena, who was killed. Ramsay rebuked the school district and the sheriff’s department, who she said discriminated against her family and her daughter because they are Black. “I was asked by a reporter, ‘Would the shooter have been killed if he was Black?’” Ramsay said. “It’s not that simple. The shooter, if he was Black, would not have made it past the gate, because that’s the response. It’s an aggressive response.”
Ramsay recalled 17-year-old Helena as “radiant” during their last dinner together and told Cruz he was “pure evil.” “You took away an angel that day who could’ve made a difference in society,” she said.
Multiple parents expressed anger toward the defense attorneys and the jury. Patricia Oliver, the mother of victim Joaquin Oliver, said the defense showed “shameful, despicable behavior” by representing Cruz. The father of ninth-grader Gina Montalto claimed an “activist juror” had swung the panel “in favor of evil,” referring to the jury’s inability to reach the required unanimous consensus for a death penalty recommendation.
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Defense attorneys urged Judge Elizabeth Scherer to tamp down the vitriol directed at the jury and Cruz’s assigned team of public defenders. “I did my job, and every member of this team did their jobs,” McNeill told the judge. “And we should not personally be attacked for that.” Judge Scherer said 99 percent of the comments had been appropriate, and that the defense was drawing more attention to the issue by discussing it further. “Everybody has maintained decorum but for a few comments,” the judge said. “It’s best to just move on rather than highlight them.” When a defense lawyer pushed Judge Scherer on the issue, she sent him to sit in the back of the room. “You’re out of line,” she said.
The sentencing hearing will continue with more victims’ statements on Nov. 2.