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Parkland school shooter spared the death sentence as Florida jury recommends life without parole

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Parkland shooter spared death sentence
Parkland shooter spared death sentence 02:30

The man who shot and killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, was spared the death penalty as a Florida jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Thursday's decision comes more than four years after the deadliest U.S. mass shooting that has ever gone to trial.

Under Florida law, a death sentence can only be handed down if jurors had unanimously recommended he be executed. If at least one juror found aggravating factors of the murders did not outweigh mitigating factors presented by the defense, the only other option is life in prison.

Nikolas Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty last October to all charges brought against him by a Florida grand jury, which included 17 counts of premeditated murder and an additional 17 counts of attempted murder to account for people injured during the shooting. The penalty trial began in July after months of delays, and concluded earlier this week with closing arguments before a sequestered jury moved into deliberations.

Jurors had to determine whether Cruz should face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole for the Parkland massacre, which happened on Valentine's Day in 2018 and remains the deadliest high school shooting on record in the U.S. 

Thursday's recommendation, which will be followed by official sentencing from the judge on Nov. 1, was based on the jury's finding that although there were numerous aggravating factors in the crime, those circumstances did not outweigh mitigating factors — parts of the gunman's troubled childhood that the defense said influenced his turn toward violence. 

Some of the victims' families spoke out immediately after the hearing to voice their disappointment over the decision.

Ilan and Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shooting, called the jury's recommendation "a stain on this world that we live in." 

"I'm disgusted with our legal system. I'm disgusted with those jurors," Ilan Alhadeff said. "That you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded and not give the death penalty? What do we have the death penalty for?"

"The jurors let us down," he said. 

And he emphasized the gunman's "heinous crime," saying, "I pray that that animal suffers every day of his life in jail." 

Parents of Parkland shooting victim "disgusted" with sentencing decision 05:29

Linda Beigel Schulman, whose son Scott Beigel was teacher at the school, said, "If this was not the most perfect death penalty case, then why do we have the death penalty at all? There's no doubt that the verdict should have been the death penalty." 

"I'm never going to get closure. I'm never going to get my son back," she said later. "The anger's always going to be here."

Anne Ramsay, whose 17-year-old daughter, Helena, was a student, shared her outrage over the jury's recommendation and said it sends a dangerous message to the public about the consequences of committing an act of gun violence. "I believe justice was not done," she said. "The wrong verdict was given out today." 

Ramsay added that the Parkland massacre demonstrates a need for more gun control and pointed to the pattern of school shootings in the U.S. 

"There is no excuse in this country to have weapons of war on the streets, and if you do not get that, then something is wrong in this country," she said.

Families embrace in court
Linda Beigel Schulman, Michael Schulman, Patricia Padauy Oliver and Fred Guttenberg, families of Parkland school shooting victims, embrace in the courtroom while waiting for the verdict in the penalty phase of the trial of Nikolas Cruz, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Oct. 13, 2022. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP

As relatives of the Parkland shooting victims continued to speak out, Benjamin Thomas, the jury foreperson, told CBS Miami that he was "not happy" with the outcome either.

"It didn't go the way I would've liked, or the way I voted. But that's how the jury system works. Everybody gets to vote, everybody gets to decide," said Thomas. "You know, we went through all the evidence, and some of the jurors just felt that was the appropriate sentence."

He said one juror in particular voted "with a hard 'no'" from the start of their deliberations. "She didn't believe, because he was mentally ill, he should get the death penalty," Thomas said, adding that two others ultimately voted against the penalty as well. 

Parkland gunman sentencing trial jury foreman Benjamin Thomas said it didn't go the way he would hav 04:17

Responding to the shock and disappointment from victims' families, Thomas said, "I fully understand." He told CBS Miami that "it hurt" to face the families in court while the jury's decision was being read. 

The prosecution and defense had presented markedly different arguments about Cruz's mental state throughout the emotional penalty trial, in which jurors were shown graphic images and surveillance footage of the shooting and where a number of victims' family members gave testimony. 

Prosecutor Mike Satz described Cruz as "calculated, manipulative and deadly," and pushed for the death sentence because the defendant, who he said was driven by antisocial personality disorder, "was hunting his victims" when he stalked a three-story classroom building at Marjory Stonemason Douglas for seven minutes on Feb. 14, 2018. Satz noted in closing remarks on Tuesday that Cruz had shot some victims at close range with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and returned to some of the wounded "to finish them off." 

Satz also referenced videos and online comments that Cruz made ahead of the shooting, where he articulated his plans "to kill a ... ton of people and children."

"It is said that what one writes and says is a window into their soul," Satz told the jury, calling the murders "unrelentlessly heinous, atrocious and cruel." As victims' loved ones, many of them parents, wept in the courtroom, Satz again recounted the circumstances surrounding each person's death during the Parkland shooting and recalled how Cruz looked several victim's in the eye before shooting them multiple times. 

"They all knew what was going on, what was going to happen," Satz said. He recited the victims' names and specifically recounted the death of a 14-year-old girl, who was shot twice by the defendant. The gun was placed against her chest before the second shot.

"Right on her skin. She was shot four times and she died," Satz said. The prosecutor pointed to a YouTube comment from Cruz that was shown previously during the penalty trial, where he said, "I don't mind shooting a girl in the chest." Continuing, Satz told the jury, "that's exactly what he did."

Meanwhile, defense attorney Melisa McNeill, who clashed with Judge Elizabeth Scherer after unexpectedly resting her case in August, had built an argument suggesting that Cruz was "a broken, brain-damaged, mentally ill young man." Saying that the defendant "knew right from wrong and chose wrong," McNeill argued that Cruz's psychology and violent behavior stemmed from the effects of fetal alcohol abuse. She had pushed for a life sentence without possibility of parole.

"It's the right thing to do. Mercy is what makes us civilized. Giving mercy to Nikolas will say more about who you are than it will ever say about him," McNeill said in court, asking, "how many times have we made decisions based solely on anger and regretted it?"

McNeill's closing argument hinged on evidence that Cruz's birth mother, Brenda Woodard, drank heavily during her pregnancy and "poisoned him in the womb." She said Cruz had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder as a result, causing the alarming and violent behavior he exhibited starting at age 2.

"There is no time in our lives when we are more vulnerable to the will and the whims of another human being than when we are growing and developing in the wombs of our mothers," McNeill said while asking the jury to hand out a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

"There is no punishment you could ever give Nikolas Cruz that would ever make him suffer as much as those people have and as much as they will continue to suffer every single day," the defense attorney continued.

The Parkland massacre is the deadliest mass shooting that has ever gone to trial in the U.S., as nine others who killed at least 17 people in mass shootings died either during or soon after the massacres. The suspect implicated in the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people were killed, is currently awaiting trial. 

The jurors made a rare visit to the massacre scene in August, retracing the shooter's steps through the three-story freshman building, known as "Building 12."  During the visit, they saw dried blood, bullet holes and scattered rose petals.

After they left, a group of journalists — including CBS Miami's Joan Murray — was allowed in for a much quicker first public view.

"It was really frozen in time," Murray said.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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