Parkland high school shooting: Jurors recommend life sentence for Nikolas Cruz

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jurors on Thursday recommended a life sentence for Nikolas Cruz, who last year pleaded guilty to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

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Jurors began deliberations on Wednesday after hearing several weeks of testimony in the penalty phase of Cruz’s trial. The 24-year-old pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts each of attempted and first-degree murder in the Parkland high school shooting.

Update 1:55 p.m. EDT Oct. 13: Families shared outrage and disgust following the decision to recommend a life sentence for Cruz.

“There are 17 victims that did not receive justice today,” Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old shooting victim Jaime Guttenberg, said at a news conference Thursday. “This jury failed our families today.”

Debra Hixon, the widow of 49-year-old Chris Hixon, said the jury’s decision showed the families “that (Cruz’s) life meant more than the 17 that were murdered ... and the thousands of people in that school and that community that are terrorized and traumatized every single day.”

Several of the victims’ families questioned what the death penalty was for if not for a case such as Cruz’s.

Update 1:10 p.m. EDT Oct. 13: Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, questioned how jurors could determine that mitigating circumstances existed to spare Cruz from the death penalty.

At a news conference on Thursday, Montalto read a statement from Stand With Parkland, a group he founded to advocate for public safety following the Parkland shooting.

“Today’s ruling was yet another gut punch for so many of us who devastatingly lost our loved ones on that tragic Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” he said. “Seventeen beautiful lives were cut short, by murder — heinous, pre-planned torturous murder. And the monster that killed them gets to live another day.”

Update 1 p.m. EDT Oct. 13: The parents of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, one of the more than a dozen students killed by Cruz in 2018, expressed anger and disgust with the verdict announced Thursday.

“This should have been the death penalty, 100%,” Lori Alhadeff said. “Seventeen people were brutally murdered on Feb. 14, 2018. I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome. I do not understand — I just don’t understand this.”

Ilan Alhadeff said jurors “set a precedent for the next mass killing.”

“I’m disgusted with our legal system. I’m disgusted with those jurors. I’m disgusted with the system,” he said. “That you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded and not get the death penalty — what do we have the death penalty for?”

Update 11:50 a.m. EDT Oct. 13: Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer set Cruz’s next sentencing hearing for Nov. 1 to allow for victims to make statements in court.

Jurors on Thursday recommended Cruz face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after at least one determined that mitigating factors were proven at trial which outweighed aggravating factors in the case.

The panel unanimously found that Cruz “knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons,” and that the killings were “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel,” and “committed in a cold, calculated and premediated manner,” among other factors.

Update 11:45 a.m. EDT Oct. 13: Jurors declined to sentence Cruz to death Thursday with at least one finding that “one or more mitigating factors was established by the greater weight of the evidence.”

Update 11:40 a.m. EDT Oct. 13: Jurors have rejected sentencing Cruz to death on the first 15 of 17 first-degree murder charges that he pleaded guilty to last year in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Update 11:20 a.m. EDT Oct. 13: Jurors have so far recommended a life sentence for Cruz on the first nine first-degree murder charges he pleaded guilty to.

Jurors determined that the trial proved several aggravating factors in the case that warranted a possible death sentence. However, at least one juror determined that mitigating circumstances outweighed those factors.

Update 11 a.m. EDT Oct. 13: Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has begun reading the verdict in court. For several of the verdicts, jurors unanimously found aggravating factors that warranted a possible death sentence.

Original report: The panel will recommend whether Cruz should face a life sentence or be put to death, with Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer having final say over the sentence.

Cruz was 19 years old in 2018, when he brought an AR-15 rifle into his former high school and began shooting in the school’s hallways. The six-minute massacre is the deadliest mass shooting to land before a jury.

During the trial, which started in July, prosecutors described Cruz as a calculated killer who coldly planned to commit mass murder.

“What he wanted to do, what his plan was and what he did was to murder children at school and their caretakers,” Assistant State Attorney Mike Satz said in closing statements, according to WPTV.

Satz asked that jurors return a death penalty sentence for Cruz.

Attorneys for Cruz asked jurors to consider his difficult family life, including his birth mother’s history of addiction and the deaths of his adoptive parents, CNN reported.

“He was poisoned in the womb,” public defender Melisa McNeill said in closing statement, referencing the fact that her client’s birth mother abused drugs and alcohol while pregnant with him, according to CNN. “Because of that his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own.”

Fourteen students were among the 17 people killed on Feb. 14, 2018. Authorities identified them as Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque, 14; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Alaina Petty, 14; Alex Schachter, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Peter Wang, 15; Carmen Schentrup, 16; Nick Dworet, 17; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Helena Ramsay, 17; and Meadow Pollack, 18.

The shooting also claimed the lives of the school’s athletic director and wrestling coach, Christopher Hixon, 49; football coach Aaron Feis, 37; and geography teacher and cross-country coach Scott Beigel, 35.

Check back for more on this developing story.

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