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For many family members of Parkland victims, life sentence for shooter doesn't feel like 'justice'

Parkland school shooter verdict - Anne Ramsay
Joe Cavaretta/AP
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Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Anne Ramsay speaks after the jury recommends life in prison for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, as Michelle Thomas listens. Ramsay's daughter, Helena, was killed in the 2018 shootings. Thomas was Helena Ramsay's cousin.

WLRN's Gerard Albert III was at the Broward County Courthouse on Thursday to hear the jury's verdict for the Parkland shooter: life in prison. He reports family members of the victims feel betrayed — and delves into how jurors came to that decision and what comes next.

For many family members of the victims of the Parkland shooting, anything less than the death penalty for the confessed gunman is a miscarriage of justice.

Ilan Alhadeff’s 14 year old daughter Alyssa was murdered that day.

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“What do we have the death penalty for? You set a precedent for the next mass killing and nothing happens to you. You'll get life in jail,” Alhadeff said. “I'm sorry. That is not okay. As a country, we need to stand up and say that's not okay!”

WLRN’s Broward County reporter Gerard Albert III was in the courtroom to hear Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer deliver the verdict.

Under Florida law, a death penalty verdict must be unanimous — if just one juror votes for life, the sentence will be life.

For many of the family members, Albert says the decision to not punish the shooter to the fullest extent of the law is just the latest betrayal.

"So many systems failed their children and now they feel like the justice system has failed them as well," Albert said.

Anne Ramsay addressed President Joe Biden directly in some of her statements. Witnesses testified that her 17 year old daughter Helena Ramsay spent her last moments trying to help other students.

"President Biden, it’s been four years and I’ve listened to countless shootings one after another. Traumatizing my family. Traumatizing our neighborhood. Traumatizing Parkland and Coral Springs," Ramsay said. "And today the wrong verdict was given."

Albert spoke with WLRN education reporter Kate Payne about how family members and survivors have been grappling with the decision.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

School Shooting-Florida
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
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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.

PAYNE: Survivors and family members of victims have been waiting for this decision for years. You were in the court — what was the feeling like there when the judge announced that the shooter would get life in prison instead of the death penalty?

ALBERT: The courthouse was as packed as it’s been during the entire trial. A lot of them were shaking their heads and crying. Some of them were holding their head in their hands. They feel — and these are their words — they feel betrayed, they feel devastated, they feel like justice has not been served. And officials like the governor, like the Broward county sheriff said they also did not like the outcome of this trial.

Jurors throughout this trial were confronted with just gruesome evidence of the massacre in punishing detail — what can you tell us about how jurors came to this decision?

Well, it comes down to aggravating factors — which are presented by the prosecution — and mitigating circumstances — which are presented by the defense. The reason that the jury recommended life is because at least one juror said that the mitigation — the things like the fact that the shooter’s birth mother abused drugs and alcohol during pregnancy and the fact that the shooter was mentally ill — those things outweighed the cruel nature of the killings…at least for one of the jurors.

For family members of the victims who have been frustrated by elected officials’ lack of action when it comes to gun reform, a lot was riding on this verdict for them. A number of them talked about the message that they think this sends to the country. I wonder what you think the broader implications are of this case and this tragedy?

So many systems failed their children and now they feel like the justice system has failed them as well. But a lot of those parents were the ones that helped pass significant gun control legislation. In Florida, after the shooting the minimum age went up to buy a gun from 18 to 21. There’s now a three day waiting period now and a lot of improved school safety. And even this year, President Biden passed a lot of gun violence prevention measures. Another thing you have to remember is that this is only one case. And it mainly centered around the mental health of the killer. Jurors really couldn’t think about broader implications. They had to just focus on the facts of this case.

Going forward, what else comes next in the case?

There is no appealing this decision. Nikolas Cruz — the shooter — will get life in prison. Next up really is that the judge, Elizabeth Scherer, will officially sentence him to 17 consecutive life sentences and he’ll be hauled off to prison. Before that, victims and their families have the opportunity to address the court and tell the judge how much the shooting has affected them. But that will not change anything. The judge cannot give a death sentence if the jury did not recommend it. All that is scheduled to take place now on Nov. 1.

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.
Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter