FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A jury spared Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty Thursday for killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, sending him to prison for the remainder of his life in a decision that left many families of the victims angered, baffled and in tears.
The jury's decision came after seven hours of deliberations over two days, ending a three-month trial that included graphic videos, photos and testimony from the massacre and its aftermath, heart-wrenching testimony from victims' family members and a tour of the still blood-spattered building.
Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote on at least one count. The jury found there were aggravating factors to warrant the death penalty for each victim, such as agreeing that the murders were "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel." But one or more jurors also found mitigating factors, such as untreated issues he had as a child. In the end, the jury could not agree that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones, so Cruz will get life without parole.
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Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally issue the life sentences Nov. 1. Relatives, along with the students and teachers Cruz wounded, will be given the opportunity to speak at the sentencing hearing.
Cruz, his hair unkempt, largely sat hunched over and stared at the table as the jury's recommendations were read. Rumblings grew from the family section — packed with about three dozen parents, spouses and other relatives of the victims — as life sentences were announced. Many shook their heads, looked angry or covered their eyes.
The jury of 12 people had asked late Wednesday to see the AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, but the Broward County Sheriff's Office security team objected, even though the gun has been made inoperable and Cruz's ammunition would be removed from the jury room.
Lead prosecutor Mike Satz, who has more the five decades of experience, pointed out that in every murder case he has tried or knows, jurors got to examine and handle the weapon in their room — and he said a knife or machete is more dangerous than a gun without a firing pin. Security has never been an issue, he said.
Cruz's attorneys had no objection to jurors seeing the gun.
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to murdering 14 students and three staff members and wounding 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz said he chose Valentine's Day to make it impossible for Stoneman Douglas students to celebrate the holiday ever again.
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Satz kept his case simple for the seven-man, five-woman jury. He focused on Cruz's eight months of planning, the seven minutes he stalked the halls of a three-story classroom building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, and his escape.
He played security videos of the shooting and showed gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos. Teachers and students testified about watching others die. He took the jury to the fenced-off building, which remains blood-stained and bullet-pocked.
Cruz's lead attorney Melisa McNeill and her team never questioned the horror he inflicted, but focused on their belief that his birth mother's heavy drinking during pregnancy left him with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Their experts said his bizarre, troubling and sometimes violent behavior starting at age 2 was misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, meaning he never got the proper treatment. That left his widowed adoptive mother overwhelmed, they said.
The defense cut its case short, calling only about 25 of the 80 witnesses they said would testify. They never brought up Cruz's high school years or called his younger half-brother, Zachary, whom they accused of bullying.
In rebuttal, Satz and his team contended that Cruz did not suffer from fetal alcohol damage but has antisocial personality disorder.
Their witnesses said Cruz faked brain damage during testing and that he was capable of controlling his actions, but chose not to. For example, they pointed to his cashier job at a discount store where he never had any disciplinary issues.
Prosecutors also played numerous video recordings of Cruz discussing the crime with their mental health experts where he talked about his planning and motivation.
The defense alleged on cross-examination that Cruz was sexually molested and raped by a 12-year-old neighbor when he was 9.