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‘A gut punch’: Families of Parkland victims rage against shooter’s life sentence

School Shooting-Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Gena Hoyer holds a photograph of her son, Luke, who was killed in the 2018 shootings, as she awaits the verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

Updated at 4 p.m.

Disgust. Devastation. Betrayal.

Family members whose loved ones were violently taken from them at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School say the justice system has failed them.

“I am disgusted with our legal system. I am disgusted with those jurors,” said Ilan Alhadeff, the father of 14 year old Alyssa Alhadeff, speaking minutes after the verdict was read out. “The system continues to fail us.”

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Parents and spouses of the 17 people murdered on Feb. 14, 2018 cradled their heads in their hands as Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer read the unanimous verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole on Thursday morning.

For some, the news was utterly overwhelming: the mother of 15 year old Peter Wang – who survivors testified died trying to help other students – was crying so intensely she had to be helped out of the press room by family and a victim’s advocate.

The jury determined that mitigating circumstances – including that the shooter suffered brain damage and abuse as a child – outweighed the nature of the crimes, described by prosecutors as heinous, calculated and cruel.

Lori Alhadeff – who was elected to the Broward County School Board on a campaign of school safety and accountability after her daughter was murdered – said she was completely shocked by the decision.

“It wasn't even a doubt in my mind that this would be the death penalty. I'm beyond disgusted,” she said. “What is the death penalty for if not for the murder and killing of 17 people?”

School Shooting-Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Gena Hoyer awaits the verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Hoyer's son, Luke, was killed in the 2018 shootings.

She later tweeted, "I didn't think I was able to feel more disappointment & heartbreak."

Tony Montalto – father of 14 year old Gina Montalto and president of the advocacy organization Stand With Parkland – said the decision was “yet another gut punch” to the families whose lives were forever changed that day – and to the people they lost.

“Our justice system should have been used to punish the shooter to the fullest extent of the law. Not as an act of revenge, but to protect our nation’s schools, to stop others from attacking the future of this country,” Montalto said.

In a country where state and federal lawmakers have repeatedly refused to pass more restrictive gun control laws that would significantly limit access to deadly weapons, families of the victims had hoped the imposition of the death penalty would help deter the next school shooter.

“I think that it puts all school children in jeopardy and certainly sends the wrong message,” Montalto said.

Fred Guttenberg – the father of 14 year old Jaime Guttenberg – says the jury’s decision, and what he sees as the failure of the court system, underscores the importance of demanding change from elected officials.

“The next thing I do moving forward is everything I possibly can to remind people how important the next election is,” he said. “Because we do have the ability to do things in this country to reduce gun violence through our vote. And we need to do that.”

School Shooting-Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Debbie Hixon reaches out to her sister-in-law, Natalie Hixon, as they hear that Debbie Hixon's husband's murderer will not receive the death penaltyat the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

Broward County School Board Member Debbi Hixon said the decision feels like a betrayal – not only to the families of the victims, but to the survivors and the countless South Florida residents whose lives were upended by the tragedy.

Hixon’s husband Chris was a Navy veteran and the athletic director at MSD and he died trying to stop the shooter.

“What it says to me, what it says to my family, what it says to the other families, is that [the shooter’s] life meant more than the 17 that were murdered, and the 17 that were shot and the thousands of people in that school, in that community that are terrorized and traumatized every single day,” Hixon said.

Some family members of victims and survivors of the massacre have spoken out against the death penalty in the past – an indication of how divided the American public is on the issue. According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, and 78% say there is some risk of innocent people being excuted.

The Parkland shooter’s guilt was never at question; he confessed to the crimes almost immediately.

Still, Robert Schentrup – the brother 16 year old Carmen Schentrup, who was murdered that day – has said the gunman doesn’t deserve to be executed for what he did.

“You cannot say that murder is heinous or unforgiveable,” Schentrup wrote on Twitter before the decision came down, “while advocating for the murder of someone else.”

But for other family members of the 17, it’s a miscarriage of justice that the shooter wasn’t held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

“It’s a stain,” said Ilan Alhadeff. “It’s a stain on this world that we live in.”

School Shooting Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
Pool South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Fred Guttenberg reacts as he awaits a verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Guttenberg's daughter, Jaime, was killed in the 2018 shootings.

To work through his heartache, Guttenberg says he’ll recommit himself to trying to prevent other mass shootings – but he says first he has to break the news to the daughter who was taken from him.

“I'm going to go to the cemetery and I'm going to tell my daughter what happened today,” Gutenberg said. “And I’m going to tell her I love her and I always will.”

State and local officials react

At a press conference at the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Broward County State Attorney Harold Pryor said: “When I was elected as Broward State attorney, I promised that I would uphold the law. And I agreed that this community, not one person sitting in the office, should hear all the facts and all the evidence of this case, and that the community should make a decision about whether this mass killer should get the death penalty or life in prison.

"We thank the jurors for their services for taking on this difficult task. We hope that while there is no such thing as closure, there will never be closure, we'll never find closure. But I do hope that this will bring some measure of finality and justice to this terrible chapter."

In a press release, Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said he hoped the "verdict would provide equitable justice and a degree of closure for the victims' family member" but that "every aspect of our criminal justice system collectively failed the victims and their families."

He added: "The evidence provided in this case was overwhelming, and the nature of the defendant’s atrocities demonstrated a deliberate and calculated act of unprecedented violence on helpless unarmed children and adults.

“Despite the fact that the defendant slaughtered 17 innocent people without any remorse, the jury chose to spare his life. I disagree with their verdict.”

“There are crimes for which the only just penalty is death,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist tweeted. “The Parkland families and community deserved that degree of justice. I will continue to pray for healing for the families and every person impacted by this tragedy.”

Annette Taddeo, the democratic nominee for Florida’s 27th District wrote on Twitter. "Prayers this morning to every family affected by the Parkland tragedy, many have become close friends throughout this process and I will always stand with you."

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Rick Scott tweeted: “While I have faith in our justice system, today’s decision is not what many of us expected.

"I can only pray that as each phase of this painful process concludes, those whose hearts were torn by this monster find some measure of closure, and that our Heavenly Father delivers to them the peace of knowing that they will one day be reunited in His kingdom with those we so tragically lost.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was disappointed to hear about the verdict, saying he didn’t think anything other than the death penalty was appropriate.

The governor also voiced his frustration over how long it took to get to this point: “They used to do this … he would have been executed in six months. He’s guilty. Everybody knew that from the beginning and yet it takes years and years in this legal system that is not serving the interest of victims.”

In her acknowledgment of the jury’s recommendation, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Vickie L. Cartwright said that additional mental health personnel are being sent to schools throughout the district — and are on standby to assist those in need.

“Our District understands that the jury’s recommendation in the sentencing phase of the trial will impact our students, staff, families and the entire community,” Carwright said in a statement.

The district said that mental health resources are also accessible online for students, families and community members.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter
Katie Lepri Cohen is WLRN's engagement editor. Her work involves distributing and amplifying WLRN's journalism on social media, managing WLRN's social accounts, writing and editing newsletters, and leading audience-listening efforts.