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‘No forgiveness’: Parkland families confront gunman in court hearing before life sentence is set

Amy Beth Bennett
South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool
Meghan Petty is comforted as she takes a break from giving her victim impact statement during the sentencing hearing for Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 1, 2022. Petty’s sister, Alaina, was killed in the 2018 shootings.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday

Their grief is overwhelming. Their pain, unending.

At the Broward County Courthouse on Tuesday, victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and family members of those who were murdered were able to speak directly to the gunman who massacred their loved ones on Feb. 14, 2018 — unbounded by the strictures of a jury trial.

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Tuesday was the first of what’s expected to be two days of hearings dedicated to statements from the victims, when the courtroom is given over to those affected by the crime to say whatever they want to the confessed Parkland shooter.

David Rabinovitz is the grandfather of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, one of the 17 people murdered that day. He spoke directly to the gunman, calling him “Parkland murderer”.

“When you die, it is my fondest hope that they take you and…burn you and take your ashes and throw them in the garbage dump,” Rabinovitz said. “Parkland murderer, I hope your maker sends you directly to hell to burn for the rest of your eternity.”

An outpouring of grief and rage

Last month, a jury decided that Nikolas Cruz will spend the rest of his life in prison, after jurors could not reach a unanimous decision on sentencing him to death, as required by Florida law. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is slated to formally sentence the gunman on Wednesday.

During the jury trial, victims and family members gave emotionally gutting testimony — but during the earlier phases of the proceedings they were restricted in what they could tell jurors and they were not allowed to address the gunman directly, statements which could risk a mistrial.

On Tuesday, the guardrails came off.

Some of the comments from family members raised concerns against the backdrop of recent threats against public officials — and led to a fiery exchange between defense attorneys and the judge.

Max Schachter is the father of 14-year-old Alex Schachter, another of the 17 people murdered.

“Today's my birthday,” Schachter said. “Every Nov. 1, I will be celebrating my birthday while you are in prison. And every Nov. 1, I will be blowing out my birthday candles. And you know what my wish will be? That you suffer a painful, painful violent death.”

For some, anything short of the death penalty isn’t ‘justice’

Some victims took the opportunity not only to rage against the shooter, but against the judicial system — arguing that the courts failed them because the gunman will not be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

The shooter’s defense team argued that mitigating factors in his life outweighed what prosecutors said was the premeditated, calculated and especially heinous nature of the crimes.

The defense attorneys presented evidence that the gunman’s mother abused drugs and alcohol when she was pregnant with him, resulting in brain damage that left him with severe behavioral issues from a young age.

Debbi Hixon, whose husband 49-year-old Chris Hixon died trying to stop the shooter, says the gunman’s personal struggles are no excuse for what he did.

“You stole [Chris] from us and you did not receive the justice that you deserved,” Hixon told the shooter. “There is no mitigating circumstance that will ever outweigh the heinous and cruel way you stole him from us.”

“I feel betrayed by our justice system,” said Meghan Petty, whose 14-year-old sister Alaina Petty was murdered.

Amy Beth Bennett
South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool
Patricia Padauy Oliver during the sentencing hearing for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, Nov. 1, 2022. Padauy Oliver’s son, Joaquin Oliver, was killed in the 2018 shootings.

“He has escaped this punishment because a minority of the jury was given the power to overturn the majority decision made by people who are able to see him for what he is,” she said, “a remorseless monster who deserves no mercy.”

Some family members call for legislative action

Some family members called on Florida officials to re-examine state law based on their experiences during the trial, including Theresa Rabinovitz, the grandmother of Alyssa Alhadeff.

“The Florida Supreme Court should look at the law that was changed in 2016 that allows the minority rule in the case of a death sentence,” she said. “If killing 17 innocent people and wounding 17 more does not warrant the death penalty then what possibly does?”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has already said he’ll ask state lawmakers to once again allow non-unanimous jury decisions for death penalty verdicts. In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the decisions must be unanimous, but in 2020 — after new justices were appointed — the court reversed itself.

Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was murdered that day, also called for legislative action. He’s the president of Stand With Parkland, an advocacy group formed by parents of victims.

Montalto criticized the restrictions placed on victims’ statements earlier in the trial, when Judge Scherer directed the jurors to not consider the families’ testimony as aggravating factors.

“How could it be a fair trial when the only people who can speak for the victims – those who cannot speak for themselves – have the jury instructed to disregard our words. The system is biased against the victims,” he said. “This injustice must be fixed.”

Statements directed at defense team raise alarm

In their statements on Tuesday, some family members assailed the jurors and the defense team, prompting an outcry from the defendant’s attorneys.

Patricia Oliver, the mother of 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, who was killed that day, said the lawyers would face karmic retribution for the sentence that was handed down. She also appeared to refer to the attorneys’ children and families, which spurred Chief Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeil to lodge a formal objection.

“The victims’ families are entitled to feel however they want to feel,” McNeil said. “Attacking defense counsel, attacking the judicial system and attacking the jurors is not permissible. And it sends a message to this community that if you sit as a juror and the verdict you're not in agreement with, that you will be chastised.”

Gordon Weekes, the Public Defender for Broward County, urged Judge Scherer to tamp down on the statements, especially in light of the recent threats and actual violence committed against government officials and their families, referencing the attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“No one jumped up when people were referring to karma acting in the universe. No one was jumping up when they referred to the defense’s children,” Weekes said. “We do not want to create an atmosphere where dog whistles are emanating from this courtroom encouraging folks to act.”

In a heated outburst, Scherer summarily and angrily dismissed the request, repeatedly yelling over Weekes and ordering one of his staff attorneys who had spoken up to leave his seat at the defense table and sit in the back of the courtroom.

Victims struggle with trauma, survivor’s guilt

Above all, the victims spoke of their profound loss — the lives stolen, the Valentine's Day cards never given, the words of love left unsaid — and the fear that grips their waking moments and invades their dreams.

Stacey Lippel is a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and told the shooter she lives with survivor's guilt, wishing she could've done more to save her students and colleagues from him.

"Because of you, I check for all exits wherever I am. Because of you, I think of the worst case scenario for myself and my family. Because of you, I will never feel safe again," Lippel. "The only comfort I have is that your life will be filled with horror and fear."

The court is scheduled to continue hearing testimony from victims and family members on Wednesday at 1:30 pm.

This is a breaking news story, please come back for updates.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter