FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s two-day sentencing hearing begins Tuesday with the families of the 17 people he murdered getting their chance after almost five years to address him directly about the devastation he brought to their lives.
After they and the 17 people Cruz wounded get their chance to speak, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Wednesday will formally sentence him to life in prison without parole for his Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She has no other option as the jury in his recently concluded penalty trial could not unanimously agree that the 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student deserved a death sentence.
The families gave highly emotional statements during the trial, but were restricted about what they could tell jurors: They could only describe their loved ones and the toll the killings had on their lives. The wounded could only say what happened to them.
They were barred from addressing Cruz directly or saying anything about him — a violation would have risked a mistrial. And the jurors were told they couldn’t consider the family statements as aggravating factors as they weighed whether Cruz should die.
Now, the grieving and the scarred can speak directly to Cruz, if they choose.
His attorneys say Cruz is not expected to speak. He apologized in court last year after pleading guilty to the murders and attempted murders — but families told reporters they found the apology self-serving and aimed at garnering sympathy.
That plea set the stage for a three-month penalty trial that ended Oct. 13 with the jury voting 9-3 for a death sentence — jurors said those voting for life believed Cruz is mentally ill and should be spared. Under Florida law, a death sentence requires unanimity.
Prosecutors had argued that Cruz planned the shooting for seven months before he slipped into a three-story classroom building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms. He fatally shot some wounded victims after they fell. Cruz said he chose Valentine’s Day so it could never again be celebrated at Stoneman Douglas.
Cruz’s attorneys never questioned the horror he inflicted, but focused on their belief that his birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy left him brain damaged and condemned to a life of erratic and sometimes violent behavior that culminated in the massacre — the deadliest mass shooting to go to trial in U.S. history.
Nine other people in the U.S. who fatally shot at least 17 people died during or immediately after their attacks by suicide or police gunfire. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.
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