Anguished survivors of the Parkland school shooting and grieving relatives of victims faced the gunman in court before he’s sentenced to life in prison, testifying Tuesday about the loved ones and sense of security he stole from them, and expressing anger over a jury’s decision not to recommend he be put to death.
“You don’t know me, but you tried to kill me,” teacher Stacey Lippel told Nikolas Cruz, who attended court in a red prison jumpsuit, thick eyeglasses and a medical mask. “The person I was at 2:20 (p.m.) on Wednesday, February 14, 2018, is not the same one who stands here today. I am broken and altered, and I will never look at the world the same way again.”
Many of those who took the stand spoke directly to Cruz, including the widow of victim Christopher Hixon, who told the gunman he did not get the justice he deserved: “You were given a gift – a gift of grace and mercy,” Debra Hixon said, “something you did not show to any of your victims.”
After a monthslong trial to decide whether Cruz should get the death penalty, a jury recommended he serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the shooting at a South Florida high school in which 17 people were killed, sparing his life after his defense attorneys argued he was a disturbed, mentally ill person.
Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer must abide by the jury’s recommendation – three jurors voted against a death sentence, which in Florida must be unanimous – when she sentences Cruz, 24, who pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school, even as the scourge of gun violence on US campuses continues.
She is expected to issue a formal sentence Wednesday, after hearing more testimony.
David Robinovitz, the grandfather of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, referred Tuesday to Cruz not by his name but as “Parkland murderer,” saying while the shooter “won for now,” one day he will die.
“At that time, Parkland murderer, it is my hope that you go somewhere to meet your maker,” Robinovitz said. “And, Parkland murderer, I hope your maker sends you directly to hell to burn for the rest of your eternity.”
‘You will never understand the pain’
Anne Ramsay recounted the hours after the shooting, waiting at a hotel to learn the fate of her daughter Helena and “listening to the screams and the howling of all the other families.”
One by one, families were informed of their loved ones’ deaths, until at last, only the Ramsay family was left, Anne Ramsay said. “Someone came over to us and said, ‘How many families are here?’ There was only one family. My family.”
Meantime, Cruz was in the hospital, she said, being cared for. “You were being taken care of while our loved ones lay dead.”
The parents of survivor Ben Wikander shared his experience of the past several years as he recovered from three gunshot wounds. Citing a trauma surgeon who treated her son, Bree Wikander described his injuries as “injuries similar to what a soldier would” suffer in combat.
“To this day, he is still recovering,” she said. “He continues to have limitations to what he can and cannot do. You will never understand the pain that he has gone through. His life and the lives of our entire family have changed forever.”
Survivor Samantha Mayor, through a statement read by her parents, similarly shared the story of her own recovery. She suffered a gunshot wound through her knee.
“The gunshot actually stays with me in many ways beyond what is physical. It reminds me of the most fearful day of my life, when I was laying on the floor, unable to move and terrified to speak,” she wrote.
Today, Mayor finds herself on edge, looking for the closet exit of every room she enters, her heart dropping whenever she hears a loud noise.
She also fears for her future.
“I fear that sending my children to school one day will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Mayor wrote, adding, in reference to Cruz, “I fear against all odds that there is a possibility of him being released one day.”
“Justice has not been served.”
Anthony Montalto III, the younger brother of victim Gina Montalto, 14, stressed in his testimony that Cruz is not a victim, saying he “should be made an example (of) by being sentenced to death.”
“He shouldn’t live,” Montalto said, “while my sister rots in the grave.”
Families voice anger at trial and its outcome
Many of the Parkland families already had testified over several days this summer as prosecutors closed their case for the death penalty, describing the depth of the loss they had suffered. But those statements, according to the father of 14-year-old victim Jaime Guttenberg, who was among 14 students killed, did not include everything the families wanted to say because they had to be vetted by attorneys on both sides.
“It wasn’t the extent of how we feel,” Fred Guttenberg told CNN last month after the jury’s decision. “At the sentencing hearing, we will get to say whatever we want, including discussing how we feel now about this verdict.”
This second round of victim impact testimony is happening over two days, the Broward County State Attorney’s Office confirmed to CNN in a statement ahead of the hearing. It’s unclear how many of them or victims’ loved ones will take the stand, but no time limits are being imposed, and some people may testify via video conference.
Victim impact statements this week do not need to be shown to the lawyers in advance, the state attorney’s office said.
On Tuesday, the father of victim Alex Schachter expressed his displeasure with the earlier restrictions put on the families, calling them “very upsetting.”
“We were prohibited from talking about the murderer, the crime and the punishment that he deserves,” Max Schachter said, “(that) we wanted that creature to receive.”
Others went further, expressing disappointment with the outcome of the court case.
“He chose to turn to violence,” said slain 14-year-old Alaina Petty’s older sister Meghan Petty, “and is now being protected from the same punishment he needlessly inflicted on my sister because he’s too scared to receive what he exuberantly dished out.”
Some verbally attacked the shooter’s appointed lawyers, with public defender Melisa McNeill eventually objecting and reminding the court all defendants are afforded the right to legal representation in the US justice system.
Lashing out at the defense and the jurors, she said, sends a “message to the community” that if you sit on a jury and render a verdict others don’t agree with, “that you will be chastised and degraded.”
Prosecutors responded by noting victims’ families had been limited on what they could say earlier in the trial, accusing the defense of trying to “curtail” their rights to speak – something McNeill disagreed with.
Outside court, Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes echoed McNeill’s comments, complaining that some of the testimony fell outside the scope of the law.
“Victims can express their loss. They can express their anger. They can express how it affected them and their families. They can direct those sentiments towards defendants, towards this process,” he said.
“But to suggest by doing your job there’s some level of action that you’re encouraging, that is not what Marsy’s Law is designed to do,” he added, referring to a Florida statute aimed at providing crime victims with certain protections and rights, including the right to participate and be heard in certain hearings. Other states have similar laws.
“It’s not designed to create a system where vigilante justice is being encouraged. That is where pain and sorrow have to meet the confines of the law.”
In an apparent reaction to one witness’s statement that the defense attorneys would have difficulty facing their children after representing Cruz, the defense attorneys raised the issue with the judge, saying they felt mention of their children should be out of bounds.
Defense attorney David Wheeler reiterated that feeling later Tuesday afternoon, underscoring he felt comments made about the defense counsel’s children were improper. Scherer responded she had not noticed testimony about the defense attorneys’ children.
“Judge, I can assure you that if they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice it,” Wheeler said.
“You need to sit down right now. You’re out of line,” Scherer said.
Trial pit heinous crime against gunman’s own history
Because of his plea, Cruz skipped the guilt phase of his trial and instead moved directly to the sentencing phase, in which prosecutors sought a death sentence while Cruz’s appointed public defenders lobbied for life without parole.
To make their decisions, jurors heard prosecutors and defense attorneys argue for several months over aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances – reasons Cruz should or should not be executed.
Prosecutors argued the killings were especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, backing their case with evidence the gunman spent months meticulously planning the shooting, including his online search history showing how he sought information about past mass shootings, as well as comments he left on YouTube, sharing his express desire to perpetrate a mass killing.
But defense attorneys said their client should be sentenced to life instead, pointing to a lifetime of struggles that began before he was even born: His biological mother, they said, used drugs and alcohol while pregnant with Cruz, causing a slew of mental and intellectual deficits that stemmed from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and were never adequately addressed.
“Sometimes,” McNeill said in her own closing argument, “the people who deserve the least amount of compassion and grace and remorse are the ones who should get it.”
In rendering their decision, the jury unanimously agreed the state had proven the aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt – and they were sufficient to warrant a possible death sentence.
Ultimately, however, the jurors did not unanimously agree the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating circumstances, resulting in a recommendation for life in prison and not death.
Three jurors voted against recommending the death sentence, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR – a decision he disagreed with, noting: “I don’t like how it turned out, but … that’s how the jury system works.” One juror, Melody Vanoy, told CNN she was persuaded to vote for life because she “felt that the system failed” Cruz repeatedly throughout his life.
But the outcome did little for the families who hoped to see Cruz sentenced to death and whose disappointment turned to anger and confusion as they grappled with the decision in the hours after it was read.
“I’m disgusted with those jurors,” said Ilan Alhadeff, Alyssa’s father. “I’m disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded, and not get the death penalty. What do we have the death penalty for?”
CNN’s Denise Royal, Sara Weisfeldt and Leyla Santiago contributed to this report.