In Short: Nikolas Cruz, who plead guilty to killing 17 in a school shooting was spared the death penalty by a jury. But “Nikolas Cruz will be stuck behind for the rest of his days.”
Background of the Parkland Shooting
Valentine’s day is known for expressions of love and affection between significant others. Hearts, roses and other gifts are commonly exchanged between couples or even dropped anonymously from secret admirers. This was the scene throughout the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 on this playful holiday. That is until Nikolas Cruz, 19 at the time, arrived strapped with an AR-15 semi automatic rifle and turned the halls from a Hallmark Card Holiday to looking more like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre which occurred on the same day 89 years prior.
Cruz entered the school at the 1200 building, also known as the freshman building, after being dropped off by an Uber. He assembled his rifle in the stairwell, where a witness stumbled upon him. The shocked student was told by Cruz to “Get out of here. Things are about to get bad.” and so he did, running to the parking lot where he warned the assistant football coach, who also doubled as a security guard, about the encounter.
In the building, the gunman stalked the hallway unloading rounds into classrooms through the windows set on the doors of each class. He had already murdered 10 people and injured a few before the coach arrived to attempt to stop the shooter; however, Nikolas was prepared for any would be heroes, staying vigilant during the spree. Almost immediately after entering the building, the coach was fatally shot down.
Cruz continued on through the second floor firing into classrooms but hitting no one. After arriving on the third floor, he managed to gun down six more people before dropping his weapon and fleeing the scene. He escaped the school by blending in with fleeing students then nonchalantly went to a nearby Walmart to purchase an ICEE in the adjoined Subway then headed to McDonald’s further down the road. Finally, nearly an hour and a half after the first shots were fired, the gunman was arrested in a neighborhood about 2 miles from the school.
The 7 minute, 150 round rampage on the school left 17 injured and tragically stole the lives of 14 students and 3 staff members. Those murdered on the scene were 14 year olds; Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque, Jaime Guttenberg, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Alaina Petty, and Alex Schachter, along with Scott Beigel (35), Nicholas Dworet (17), Aaron Feis (37), Chris Hixon (49), Luke Hoyer (15), Joaquin Oliver (17), Meadow Pollack (18), Helena Ramsay (17), Carmen Schentrup (16), and Peter Wang (15).
Cruz Plead Guilty, But a Jury Decided his Fate
While awaiting trial in jail, Cruz assaulted Broward Sheriff’s jail guard, Sergeant Raymond Beltran, in November of that year. When brought before his judge, Elizabeth Scherer, he plead guilty to all 4 counts of assault and waived his rights to all aspects of a trial and appeal. His lawyers also stated they would be entering a guilty plea to the 17 counts of attempted 1st degree and 17 counts of 1st degree murder he was originally charged with. With the guilty plea entered, the penalty trial persisted with a long lasting jury selection. Those that were chosen, 7 men and 5 women, will decide if Cruz gets life in prison without parole or the death sentence. Votes must be unanimous for each victim for the defendant to receive the death penalty. If one juror votes against the death penalty for one charge Cruz would only receive life in prison. All jurors swore under oath that they were capable of passing either verdict.
Before the trial kicked off various lawsuits filed by the victims were settled. Broward County School District paid a total of 26.25 million to the 53 families seeking compensation for the district’s negligence in the case. The estates of the dead received a million dollars each while the 16 injured compensations ranged from 345,000 – 777,000 based on the severity of their injuries. Those that suffered severe trauma received 22,800 each. Anthony Borges filed his own suit against the school district citing that his injuries would require a lifetime of medical treatment meaning he would need more money to pay for it. He was shot in the lungs, abdomen and legs and ended up receiving 1.25 million.
The families of 16 of the deceased victims and a few of the injured also sued the Department of Justice over the FBI’s failure to investigate a tip that it had received about the planned attack roughly a month before the massacre. An unanimous phone call was received by the FBI that stated Cruz had bought guns and planned to “slip into a school and start shooting the place up.” The caller also stated that they “know he’s(Cruz) going to explode.” This information was never forwarded to the Bureau’s South Florida office and Cruz was never contacted or investigated. A settlement of 127.5 million was reached.
After years of delay from the COVID panic and legal fights, the trial finally kicked off July 18th 2022. This is the deadliest mass shooting to go before a jury in US history. The 9 other gunmen that killed at least 17 all died during or immediately after their shootings by suicide or police fire. A 10th suspect in a 2019 slaying of 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, TX is still awaiting trial.
The prosecution for this case sought to prove Cruz’s actions were cold, calculated, heinous and cruel; that they created great risk of death to many and interfered with a government function. All of which are aggravating factors under the Florida capital punishment law. They showed graphic videos of the scene to the jury; some security cameras and some videos taken by student’s cell phones.
Cruz Openly Talked About Planning the Shooting on Camera
Videos Cruz made himself stating his plans to attack were put into evidence as well. One such video was Cruz stating the following; “Hello, my name is Nik. I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 and some tracer rounds. It’s going to be a big event. And when you see me on the news, you’ll know who I am. You’re all going to die. Ah yeah, I can’t wait.”
Prosecutors also pointed out that Cruz would sometimes walk back to wounded victims and kill them with another array of bullets. He also looked a few of them in the eyes before ending their lives, murdering them at point blank range. At some point during the scene Cruz pulled out a vest that was loaded with extra ammo. This was all in hopes of winning a death penalty for the defendant by showing how cruel he was and that he was well prepared and planned this all out.
Witnesses Testify in Court
Following the testimony of many witnesses and families of the deceased; the jury was taken to the scene of the crime. The 1200 building was sealed off shortly after the shooting, leaving blood stained floors and bullet hole riddled walls intact. There were still Valentine’s Day decorations strewn about; though deflated and rotted away now. The only thing missing from the area were the bodies and personal belongings. The school district plans on demolishing the building once given the go ahead by prosecutors. After this trip the prosecution rested their case.
The defense had the job of securing Cruz’s life sentence. They aimed to show that the defendant was a product of circumstance and had been failed by just about everyone in his life. Their first witness testified that her and Cruz’s biological mother were prostitutes that would look to get high on anything they could get a hold of. His mother, now deceased, was heavily abusing alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine while pregnant with Cruz; leaving him severely brain damaged with fetal alcohol syndrome. Cruz suffered from a history of emotional and mental problems and had an extremely difficult time adjusting and fitting in with other children beginning at age 2. He was also allegedly sexually abused by a ‘trusted peer’. Cruz would cut himself and abuse animals and was kicked out of multiple schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He saw his adopted father die in front of him when he was 5 and his adopted mother quickly became overwhelmed dealing with him and his brother. Instead of having Cruz committed for his clearly violent and broken behavior; she used the cops and child emergency counseling services to discipline him and his brother. She died just 4 short months before Cruz went on his killing spree.
Inevitably Cruz was Spared the Death Penalty
In the end it appeared the defense managed to tug on the heart strings of at least one juror, convincing them that he shouldn’t be sentenced to death due to mental illness. When the jury brought the life in prison without the possibility of parole decision to the court it was clear that most of the families were not happy about it at all.
Some stated their disgust publicly; “This jury failed our families” stated one father.
Another claimed that he hoped ‘that animal’ would suffer everyday of his life in jail. One parent questioned why we had a death penalty at all considering this was the perfect case for it and it wasn’t utilized. Though closure may never come for the families of those that lost loved ones; the trial and the case are now closed, along with the prison door that Nikolas Cruz will be stuck behind for the rest of his days.