FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to life without parole for the 2018 murder of 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the jury said Thursday that it could not unanimously agree that he should be executed — a decision that left some parents in tears as they exited the courtroom.
While it found there were aggravating circumstances that could warrant the death penalty, jury members also found that there were mitigating factors that prevented the imposition of the penalty.
The recommendation came in the second day of deliberations, 15 minutes after jurors arrived and examined the gun Cruz used and after a delay while the court went through all the juror submissions.
Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote on at least one count. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally issue the life sentences Nov. 1. Relatives, along with the students and teachers Cruz wounded, will be given the opportunity to speak at the sentencing hearing.
Cruz, his hair unkempt, largely sat hunched over and stared at the table as the jury’s recommendations were read. Rumblings grew from the family section — packed with about three dozen parents, spouses and other relatives of the victims — as life sentences were announced. Many shook their heads, looked angry or covered their eyes, as the judge spent 50 minutes reading the jury’s decision for each victim. Some parents sobbed as they left court.
The decision brought an end to a three-month trial that included graphic videos, photos and testimony from the massacre and its aftermath, heart-wrenching testimony from victims’ family members and a tour of the still blood-spattered building.
The jury of 12 people had asked late Wednesday to see the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, but the Broward County Sheriff’s Office security team objected, even though the gun has been made inoperable and Cruz’s ammunition would be removed from the jury room.
Lead prosecutor Mike Satz, who has more the five decades of experience, pointed out that in every murder case he has tried or knows, jurors got to examine and handle the weapon in their room — and he said a knife or machete is more dangerous than a gun without a firing pin. Security has never been an issue, he said.
Cruz’s attorneys had no objection to jurors seeing the gun.
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to murdering 14 students and three staff members and wounding 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz said he chose Valentine’s Day to make it impossible for Stoneman Douglas students to celebrate the holiday ever again. The jury will determine only if Cruz is sentenced to death or life without parole. For Cruz to get a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous.
During the prosecution’s rebuttal case, Satz and his team argued that Cruz’s smooth movements with the gun and his ease in reloading helps show he does not have any neurological disorders, as claimed by his attorneys.
Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team have never disputed that Cruz committed a horrible crime, but they say his birth mother’s excessive drinking during pregnancy left him with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and put him on a path that led to the shooting.
The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting that has ever gone to trial in the U.S. Nine other people in the U.S. who fatally shot at least 17 people died during or immediately after their attacks by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.