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Verdict in Parkland shooting: Life sentence for Nikolas Cruz

School Shooting-Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
/
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
FILE - Nikolas Cruz listens to testimony while seated at the defense table during the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse, Friday, July 22, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale.

Updated at 12:07 p.m.

A jury has decided that the Parkland shooter should spend the rest of his life in prison for the massacre he perpetrated at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 – granting him the mercy he did not afford the 17 people he killed.

The unanimous verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole was handed down at the Broward County Courthouse on Thursday.

Although the official sentence will be handed down by the judge at a later date — and the prosecution can present victim impact statements ahead of the decision — under Florida statute the court must "impose the recommended sentence".

On each of the 17 counts of first degree murder, the jury found the shooter acted in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner, that his actions were heinous and cruel – aggravating factors required by state law to justify the death penalty.

But the jury found that mitigating circumstances – including evidence that the defendant suffered severe brain damage and abuse as a child – outweighed these aggravating factors.

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.

Four years and eight months after the massacre – and after just over a day of deliberations from the jury – Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer read out their verdict at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, shortly after 10:55 a.m. this morning.

The decision is unlikely to provide closure to the families whose loved ones were violently taken from them or for the students and educators who survived the nightmare and continue to relive the horrors of that day.

It stunned and infuriated family members of the victims as they sat in the courtroom – some swearing, others cradling their heads in their hands.

The 17 people killed were Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Chris Hixon, 49; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; Peter Wang, 15.

The shooter injured 17 others that day and forever changed the entire community.

The verdict is the culmination of nearly three months of an emotionally brutal trial, during which jurors and family members of the victims were confronted with the grisly evidence of the shooting in excruciating detail. It’s considered the deadliest school case ever to go to trial.

If the jury had made an unanimous recommendation of death on just one count, Cruz would have faced the death penalty.

Over the course of the trial, jurors were confronted with the grisly evidence of that day, listening to 911 calls as victims pleaded for help, watching cell phone videos of students barricaded in their besieged classrooms, and hearing in agonizing detail how each of the 17 victims died.

And they saw with their own eyes the classrooms where the horror took place – walking the halls where the abandoned Valentine’s Day cards, dead flowers and pools of blood have been preserved as a crime scene.

Jurors also heard the defense’s case that the shooter’s mother abused drugs and alcohol when she was pregnant with him and that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, which attorneys argued left him mentally damaged and disturbed from childhood onward.

School Shooting-Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
/
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler puts his arm around Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz as they await a verdict in his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

Cruz had already pleaded guilty to the charges. In this phase of the trial, the jury was asked to weigh his punishment: the death penalty or life in prison. Their verdict is a recommendation; ultimately it is the judge who decides the sentence. The official sentence is set to be handed out by the judge on Nov. 1 at 9 a.m.

The jury began its deliberations on Wednesday. That afternoon, they asked to listen to a reading of some cross-examination testimony of an expert on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Thursday morning, they also asked to view the AR-15-style rifle used in the shooting. Soon after, they alerted the judge they had reached a verdict.

There were 17 counts in the case — one for each victim. The jury was asked to decide, on each one of them, if there was an aggravating factor that existed and whether the prosecution had proven it beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, they would then have to take into account the mitigating factors presented by the defense before making their decision.

WLRN's Broward reporter Gerard Albert III was in the courtroom, you can see his updates here.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter
Gerard Albert III is back in Broward, where he grew up, after reporting on crime and public safety in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and West Palm Beach. Albert is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University.