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Parkland shooter formally sentenced to life in prison - as victims' families wish him 'hell'

South Florida Sun Sentinel
Lori and Ilan Alhadeff leave the podium after giving their victim impact statement during the sentencing hearing for Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.

The trial of Parkland shooter officially came to an emotional close on Wednesday, when Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer formally sentenced the confessed gunman to 34 counts of life in prison without the possibility of parole, to be served consecutively – one for each of the 17 people murdered and 17 people injured.

Victims and family members sitting in the courtroom wept as the judge read each count and each name, some clasping hands, their faces etched with pain.

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The 17 people who were killed: 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; and Peter Wang, 15.

Before the gunman was escorted out, victims and family members had one last chance to confront him in court – trying to express their unending grief and pain.

“You have no power anymore. You have no future. You have nothing,” Sam Fuentes told the gunman. She survived the shooting but says she will always live with the terror and the trauma of that day.

“The people that you killed will have a legacy much more important than you. And the people you nearly killed will live their lives – though with much difficulty – with compassion and dignity, in ways you will only dream,” Fuentes said.

Before handing down the sentence, Judge Scherer thanked the Parkland families for their strength, their grace and their “extraordinary restraint” during the trial. Collectively they have endured the grisly reality of America’s gun violence epidemic in a way no one else has: this is the deadliest mass shooting trial to ever reach a jury.

“You are so strong and so united…I can know that you all are going to be ok because you have each other,” Scherer said. “I want to thank the family members for the privilege of learning about each and every one of your loved ones. I can tell you that they will not be forgotten.”

Some family members say the judicial system ‘failed them’

For many whose loved ones were violently taken from them at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, anything less than the death penalty for the brutal murder of 17 innocent people doesn't feel like justice.

“Let me share how angry and frustrated I am with the judicial system,” said Ilan Alhadeff, the father of Alyssa Alhadeff. “After four and a half grueling years, a failed judicial system did not hand down a death sentence to the murderer of my daughter and 16 others.”

“Do I see this as accountability? Absolutely not. Do we have closure? Let me be clear: absolutely not.”

Last month, a jury decided the confessed shooter would be sentenced to life after they could not unanimously agree on the death penalty, as required by state law. Some family members have called for legislators to change the provision.

Linda Beigel Schulman, the mother of geography teacher Scott Beigel, told the killer that “real justice” would have allowed for each family member to shoot the gunman, one after another. She said her hopes for him are that life in prison will be a fate worse than death.

“Your fellow prison inmates are just waiting to tear you apart. Because from what I hear, child killers are highly frowned upon and hated in prison,” she said. “I welcome the day that I am told that you've been tortured and taken out for your cold-blooded, premeditated, calculated, heinous murders. Because you deserve no less.”

How the trial took a toll on victims’ families

If the gunman had been sentenced to death, the lengthy appeals process could have lasted for years or decades, dragging victims and families back into court to relive their nightmares over and over.

Instead, on Wednesday the killer was put into the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections to begin the sentence that will end with his death. According to the Associated Press, attorneys for the shooter have said he will be sent to a correctional system processing center and then transferred to a maximum security prison.

Amy Beth Bennett
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg embrace Mitch and Annika Dworet during a break in the sentencing hearing for Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2022.

The three-month long penalty trial has been a punishing and brutal experience, as victims took the witness stand to recount the horrors of Feb. 14, 2018, to show jurors the scars that still mark their bodies and tell them of the memories they cannot escape.

Family members and loved ones listened to 911 calls frantically dialed from the besieged classrooms and cell phone videos that captured the screams and moans of the injured and the dying. They heard in excruciating detail a medical examiner's description of exactly how the victims were murdered – how the bullets tore through their bodies.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jamie Guttenberg, said the experience of hearing how his daughter was murdered was so harrowing, he “developed a health issue”.

“While I was sitting there, I was having chest pains and shortness of breath,” he said. “I ended up with weeks of testing from a cardiologist. Thankfully I am ok. I have a broken heart. But I am ok.”

Guttenberg was among the family members who called out the defense team for an incident that happened Tuesday. Defense attorneys had objected when a victim’s parent said they should face karmic retribution for the gunman not being sentenced to death.

Broward Public Defender Gordon Weekes urged the judge to tamp down on statements that could be viewed as threats or incitements to violence, which she declined to do.

On Wednesday Guttenberg said it’s beyond disrespectful for Weekes to assert that the families, many of whom now devote their lives to public safety, would encourage violence. “Shame. That’s all I can say. Shame,” Guttenberg said, and called on Weekes to resign his position.

Survivors vow to reclaim their lives

With the legal process behind them, victims and family members said they’ll try to begin this next chapter of the rest of their lives – forever changed by that day.

Victoria Gonzalez, the girlfriend of Joaquin Oliver, told the shooter that his fate won’t dictate her life.

“My justice does not lie in knowing if you live or if you die. My justice lives in knowing that I loved,” she said. “Joaquin loved me entirely, with his whole being. And I choose love. So in the end, I think that I win.”

Debbi Hixon’s husband Chris Hixon was the athletic director who ran into the building to try to stop the shooter.

“After today, I don't care what happens to you,” Hixon told the gunman. “You will be a number. And for me, you will cease to exist. You have taken enough for me and my family. And today, we close this chapter on this part of our nightmare and only remember Chris for the hero he was to us every day.”

Hixon said her focus will be on honoring the spirit of her husband and the other 16 – reclaiming their lives from the senseless violence of their deaths.

“They will not just be victims of the MSD shooting. They were individuals that had plans and dreams. And I will live the rest of my life making those dreams come true,” Hixon said. “We will not just survive. We will thrive.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter