More than four years after the Parkland shooting that killed 17 people at a Florida high school, a jury ruled on Thursday that shooter Nikolas Cruz should be given a life sentence without a chance for parole instead of the death penalty that prosecutors demanded. Family members of victims have since responded to the verdict in outrage at a press conference, calling the life sentence insufficient and dangerous.
“I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times,” Lori Alhadeff, mother to a 14-year-old Parkland victim named Alyssa, said. “We are beyond disappointed with the outcome today. This should have been the death penalty, 100%.” Her husband Ilan said he was “disgusted with our legal system” and “disgusted with those jurors,” and claimed the supposedly lenient verdict “set a precedent today... for the next mass killing.”
Another parent, Tony Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Gina, expressed frustration that “nobody paid attention to the facts of this case.” Montalto said of Cruz, “He pulled the trigger 139 times. That’s cruel and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.” He also echoed Ilan, suggesting the verdict set a precedent for mass shooters being excused “because they had a tough time growing up.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the Parkland families who spoke out, including the father of 14-year-old Parkland victim Alex Schachter, who called the verdict a “travesty of justice.” Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, said the jury “failed our families today,” and claimed the verdict denied the 17 victims justice.
The mother of a teacher who was killed asked, “If this was not the most perfect death penalty case, then why do we have the death penalty at all?” She also suggested that fellow prisoners might kill Cruz: “He is probably going to be taken out sooner than later… he’s going to have to look over his shoulder every minute for the rest of his life.” A handful of other parents of slain students and faculty said they were “devastated,” “disappointed,” and “disgusted” by the ruling; others called Cruz an “animal” and “monster,” and expressed that they looked forward to receiving a phone call about his death in prison.
I can’t even imagine how difficult today and the entirety of this trial has been for Parkland families, who suffered unthinkable and irreparable loss on February 14, 2018. They have the right to feel, grieve, and express rage however they need to. As for whether the verdict will inspire the next mass shooting, as several of the parents speaking out have suggested, years of research and mass shooting after mass shooting indicate that gun violence is enabled by the lack of common-sense gun safety legislation in the U.S. This is a systemic crisis that executing Cruz won’t solve or address in any meaningful way. The death penalty is not a deterrent.
Cruz’s public defender, Jordan Weekes, seemed to anticipate the backlash the jury’s decision would inspire. “It’s important that we as a community respect the jury’s verdict and recognize that the jury’s verdict is final,” he said on Thursday. “This day is not a day of celebration, but a day of solemn acknowledgement, and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing that is necessary for this community—the healing of the trauma that occurred on Valentine’s Day, February the 14th, the healing of the loss of the families.”
Throughout the month-long trial, the shooter’s defense team emphasized Cruz’s difficult upbringing and argued that it warranted only a life sentence rather than the death penalty. They also claimed Cruz had neurodevelopmental disorders from alleged prenatal alcohol exposure, and presented evidence that his birth mother used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with him—a message that sends a pretty dangerous message for blaming and punishing pregnant people for a future child’s behavior. “In a civilized humane society, do we kill brain damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” defense attorney Melisa McNeill asked earlier this week during closing arguments. “Do we? I hope not.”
The jury’s recommendation on Thursday notably isn’t an official sentence. On Nov. 1, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally issue the gunman’s sentence, but under Florida law, she can’t depart from the jury’s recommendation.
According to CNN, when the sentence was read, none of the jurors looked at the Parkland family members while reading the verdict, while family members appeared visibly emotional. The verdict concludes a truly devastating chapter that’s been made all the more heartbreaking by the recent mass tragedy in Uvalde and the lack of meaningful gun safety legislation to prevent more massacres like this.