FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (AP) — Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz formally received a sentence of life without parole Wednesday after families of his 17 slain victims spent two days berating him as evil, a coward, a monster and a subhuman who deserves a painful death.
Cruz, shackled and in a red jail jumpsuit, showed no emotion as Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer pronounced one-by-one 34 consecutive life sentences — one each for the slain and the 17 he wounded during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in suburban Fort Lauderdale.
The judge’s voice broke as she read the first sentences, but she gained strength and volume she moved down the list. Scherer had no other choice in sentencing; the jury in Cruz’s three-month penalty trial voted 9-3 on Oct. 13 to sentence him to death, but Florida law requires unanimity for that sentence to be imposed.
Scherer made no comments directed at Cruz beyond what was legally required. Instead, the judge commended the victims’ families and the wounded, calling them strong, graceful and patient.
“I know you are going to be OK, because you have each other,” Scherer said.
Some parents and other family members of the slain wept as she spoke. When she finished and Cruz was led from the courtroom, one father muttered “Good riddance.” They then gathered into groups and hugged each other.
Cruz, 24 and a former Stoneman Douglas student, pleaded guilty last year to the massacre, where he stalked a three-story classroom building for seven minutes, firing 140 shots with a semi-automatic rifle. He will be taken within days to the Florida prison system’s processing center near Miami before he is assigned to a maximum-security facility. Experts say he will likely be placed into protective custody, perhaps for years, before he is released into the prison’s general population.
The sentencing came after the families and the wounded spent two days verbally thrashing Cruz while mourning their loved ones. Many wished him a painful demise and lamented that he could not be sentenced to death. Others said that after leaving court Wednesday, they would try not to think of him again.
“Real justice would be done if every family here were given a bullet and your AR-15 and we got to pick straws, and each one of us got to shoot one at a time at you, making sure that you felt every bit of it,” Linda Beigel Schulman said. Her son, teacher Scott Beigel, was shot in the back as he led students to safety in his classroom.
She told him that his fear would mount, “until the last family member who pulled that last straw had the privilege of making sure that they killed you.”
Fred Guttenberg told the court that last week he finally watched the security video of the shooting, witnessing his 14-year-old daughter Jaime get to within one step of a stairway door and safety when Cruz’s bullet hit her in the spine.
“I saw you enjoy it,” he told Cruz. He said he then went to Jaime’s grave and asked her for guidance.
“I walked away from the cemetery realizing that no matter the verdict, nothing changed. Jaime is still in the cemetery,” he said. “I am still a dad who every day dreamed of walking his daughter down the aisle and now I have to face a lifetime of reality that I won’t.”
Victoria Gonzalez, whose boyfriend Joaquin Oliver was murdered as he lay wounded on the floor, told Cruz she had once sat near him in a class. She told him she felt sorry every day for him then, knowing that he struggled. His attorneys said that his birth mother’s heavy drinking left him with brain damage — an assertion the prosecution and the families rejected.
“I was rooting for you,” Gonzalez told Cruz, telling him she would cross her fingers when the teacher asked him a question, hoping he would get it right and feel accomplishment. Back then her life was happy, she had friends: “Joaquin loved me for all my flaws.”
Now, she says, because of what Cruz did, she can no longer get close to anyone because she fears loss, no matter what her outside appearance says.
“I do blame you — not you alone — but definitely you,” she said. She recalled listening to a medical examiner describing Oliver’s gruesome head wound. “I will live with that — and you will live with that indifferently.”
Several parents over the two days said they would petition the Legislature to change the state’s death penalty law so that jury unanimity is no longer needed for a judge to impose a death sentence.
“Do we now have closure? Let me be clear, absolutely not,” said Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed when Cruz fired into her classroom. “What I see is that the system values this animal’s life over the 17 now dead. Worse, we sent the 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.”