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Does the Parkland shooter's life sentence set a precedent for future killers? An expert explains

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz capital murder trial
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Judge Elizabeth Scherer looks at Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill, as she gives her closing argument on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

After the jury recommended a life sentence — instead of the death penalty — for the Parkland school shooter, many families of the victims expressed a concern: Would this send a message that there is no punishment for a mass shooting? WLRN’s Gerard Albert III digs into that question.

Fred Gutenberg, who lost his daughter Jamie in the shooting, was among those who believe that justice was not served on Oct. 13.

Instead of being executed by the state, Nikolas Cruz will die in prison while serving 17 consecutive life sentences. At least one of the jurors decided to spare the shooter based on his history of mental illness.

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“I think anyone planning a shooting right now sees that there's a path to avoid the death penalty,” Guttenberg told reporters immediately after the verdict.

“Now you've sent the message out there to everyone. It's fine, get an AR-15. Get a semi-automatic weapon and you will just get off by pleading that you're insane,” Anne Ramsay, mother of Helena Ramsay, who died in the shooting, said during the same press conference.

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was also murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb.14, 2018, added: ”I think that it puts all school children in jeopardy. It certainly sends the wrong message. This shooter did not deserve compassion."

WLRN spoke with an expert about whether the threat of a death penalty did have any effect on the actions of potential future mass shooters.

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.

“I think it comes from reactions of anger and disappointment on the side of the families who were expecting a different outcome. And their anger is well placed,” said Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami.

He runs the Innocence Clinic where he works to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted.

Cruz is one of very few mass killers who survived their attacks. Most die by suicide or are killed by police. Trocino followed the case closely but was not directly involved.

"If you're going to consider criminal penalties to be a deterrence, then you have to also consider the concept that one is aware of what the penalty is and makes a cost-benefit analysis during or before the commission of the crime,” Trocino explained.

During the trial the shooter’s search history was read aloud. It shows that he planned for what to do before and during the shooting, but never searched for what comes after.

“That's a fairly sophisticated mental cost-benefit analysis that certainly doesn't didn't exist in Mr. Cruz and I don't think exists in anybody who's mentally unstable enough to do what he did,” said Trocino.

The professor hopes that people focus less on the death penalty as a way to prevent mass shootings and more on banning the guns used in them.

Mostly AR-15 style rifles that have become synonymous with mass killings.

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.