SEATTLE — Robert Schentrup dreaded this trial. He dreaded the graphic rehashing of his sister’s murder. He dreaded the state campaign for her killer to face the death penalty — a sentence that, after years of therapy and reading and reflection, the 23-year-old could not support. He dreaded the arguments it would spark with his parents.
The gunman who killed his sister Carmen and 16 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day in 2018 had pleaded guilty, and no one disputed that guilt. Why relive the horrors of the Parkland, Fla., massacre, Robert thought, when Nikolas Cruz could spend the rest of his life in prison?
Even 3,200 miles away in a new city, he struggled to avoid news out of the Fort Lauderdale courtroom where jurors will soon decide whether Cruz lives or dies. Since the proceedings began in July, they have reviewed nightmarish surveillance footage, toured bloodstained classrooms and heard, in clinical detail, how AR-15 bullets destroyed young bodies. Robert refused to watch, but when he thought about prosecutors mentioning Carmen, he got angry. Then he started typing.
“I have been dreading this phase of the trial for the last four and a half years,” he posted on Twitter. “Because this is the part where people will tell me that retribution will bring ‘justice’ and ‘healing’ to me and my family. This is the part where pundits on TV will invoke the name of my sister to support the murder of another human being.”
Americans are divided over the death penalty — whether it deters crime, whether it’s applied in a racist way, whether the state should be killing people at all. Sixty percent say they favor capital punishment for those convicted of murder, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, but that number drops among younger Americans.
Parkland reflects this rift: Some parents of Cruz’s victims have called for him to die — one father’s anguished testimony brought the gunman’s defense team to tears. Yet some survivors of the deadliest school shooting to ever go before a jury have protested the prospect of more killing. With a verdict expected as early as next month, the debate plays out on social media, on television and between members of at least one grieving family.
“You cannot say that murder is heinous or unforgiveable,” Robert wrote on Twitter, “while advocating for the murder of someone else.”
“I love but disagree with my son,” replied his mother, April, quoting his tweet. “If police did their job that day, the shooter would’ve been killed. … Since they didn’t do what was needed then, let the court get it right this time.”
Carmen was a week away from her 17th birthday when Cruz fired his semiautomatic rifle into her AP psychology class.
She was known as a fountain of talent: A violin, guitar and piano player. A church choir singer. A linguist who was teaching herself German. A straight-A student who had just been accepted into the University of Florida’s honors program. A finalist for the National Merit Scholarship — though Carmen hadn’t known this. The award letter arrived the day after her death.
“She was driven and so put together,” Robert said on a recent evening in his Seattle basement apartment, sprawled on a hand-me-down leather couch from his parents. “She had ambitions.”
His youngest sister, Evelyn, a freshman at the time, escaped the carnage. Robert, who had graduated the year before, remembers watching a Chris Rock special in his Orlando dorm room before his phone buzzed with the news that cleaved his life into Before and After.
Carmen had just been telling him about getting into the University of Florida, and somehow, suddenly, he was back in Parkland, weeping at a memorial for her, confronting the surreal display of her name on a white cross.
“Crying is now part of our daily routine,” Robert’s father, Phil, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Phil and April sued the FBI for bungling tips about Cruz, who had once commented in a YouTube video that he was going to become a “professional school shooter.” They criticized the Broward County school district for security failures, including ignored warnings, unlocked gates and a delayed response to the gunshots. They advocated stronger mental health screenings and firearm restrictions. They moved to Washington state because, as April later told an NPR reporter, Parkland came to feel “suffocating.” (April and Phil declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Robert agreed with them through it all. Until he started questioning what his parents wouldn’t waver on.
Growing up, Robert said, he and Carmen were opposites. She kept out of trouble. He got busted for smoking weed in the high school parking lot. Her dream was to cure Lou Gehrig’s disease, the affliction that killed their great aunt. He had no clear goal. She preferred a clean-cut look. He once wore his friend’s grandmother’s silk robe to class and now sports a gold nose ring. She was 18 months younger — and the babysitter.
“My parents, when they left the house once, they asked Carmen to watch me,” Robert said, laughing softly.
The shock of her loss transformed him.
Robert dropped his computer science major for psychology, trading a discipline he had seen as lucrative for what he would rather do with his time on Earth — a path that led him to probe how the forces beyond our control can influence our behavior. He went to therapy. He got into politics. He volunteered at a nonprofit focused on ending gun violence, which turned into a full-time youth organizing job. He moved into the Seattle basement apartment with two friends from Parkland, who understood his pain, as well as his reluctance to endorse justice through killing.
“One week ago, my mom called me and brought this up and was mad that I disagreed with her,” Robert told one of them, 24-year-old Zach Xu, who was sautéing halibut in their kitchen. “I was like: You brought it up! You literally brought it up!”
“Was this before or after she sub-tweeted you?” Zach wise-cracked.
They were joking around — one of Robert’s strategies for shouldering the unthinkable.
Sharing his take on the death penalty had fueled tension in the family, but it hadn’t torn them apart. Debate was practically a Schentrup sport. He admired his mother’s open mind — she always heard him out — and learned from his father it was okay to have a controversial opinion (as long as Robert could thoroughly defend it).
They still went out to dinner and sang along at country concerts and hung out with Evelyn, now a college sophomore, when she was in town from school. Robert dog-sat his parents’ 10-year-old miniature poodle, Mocha, who used to sleep in Carmen’s bedroom.
Still, conversations about Cruz’s fate never got easier, so they agreed to disagree. Most of the time.
“It is hard to say: I disagree morally with your position and not have that person think you are attacking them,” Robert said, “especially with the people who raised you.”
When his parents asked whether he wanted to join them in writing a victim impact statement for the trial — the prosecution was soliciting them from Parkland families and survivors — Robert said no.
He could not push for Cruz’s death.
Before Carmen’s murder, Robert hadn’t thought much about capital punishment. Maybe, in an alternate universe where no one expected him to weigh in on another man’s life, he wouldn’t have minded if the state killed a school shooter.
As Cruz’s sentencing approached, however, an uneasy sensation crept up: dread. He had no sympathy for the gunman. Rather, Robert had to fight to keep rage from consuming him.
Why didn’t he want Cruz to die?
Robert vaguely remembered reading about people who lost a loved one in the 2015 Charleston church massacre. A mother, a sister, a daughter — they all publicly forgave the perpetrator.
“I found it at the time really weird,” he said. “I was like, how could they do that? It didn’t make sense to me. But it stuck with me.”
Then he read “Just Mercy,” the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and civil rights advocate who represented death row prisoners, including a falsely accused man whose story turned into a movie.
Robert was horrified by the facts Stevenson laid out: America’s death row prisoners are disproportionately Black, poor and mentally ill. They tend to have backstories of childhood abuse, brain damage and PTSD from military service. And when they’re put to death, those who love them suffer.
Teenage robbers had murdered the author’s grandfather. Robert was moved to read that Stevenson directed his fury elsewhere. “These shocking and senseless crimes couldn’t be evaluated honestly,” Stevenson wrote, “without understanding the lives these children had been forced to endure.”
Robert considered Cruz’s life.
The gunman’s defense attorneys have argued that his mother abused cocaine, alcohol and tobacco while he was in the womb, damaging Cruz’s brain. She put him up for adoption, and by age 3, a child psychiatrist told Cruz’s new family that he had severe issues.
His adoptive father died before Cruz reached kindergarten. His adoptive mother called authorities to their home more than 50 times. She never opted to have Cruz committed, his lawyers said, because she would have lost his Social Security check.
“If I have anger, it’s mostly at the broad system set up to enable that outcome,” Robert said, discussing Cruz’s background with his roommate. He and Zach both worked from home and chatted between Zoom calls. The more philosophical the topic, the better.
Cruz should have received intensive help, Robert went on. He should never have been allowed to touch a gun.
“The fact that the school administration knew this kid had a lot of bad s--- going on and nothing was done to significantly help him. ...” he said. “There were red flags out the a--.”
“He even called the cops on himself,” Zach interjected, referring to a time Cruz told a 911 dispatcher that he had gotten in a fight with a family friend’s son.
Zach, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas 2016 graduate, had followed the trial sparingly. He knew Carmen. His football coach also died in the shooting. The other night, days after the defense had rested its case and prosecutors prepared to begin their rebuttal, he asked Robert: Have you forgiven Cruz?
Robert had carefully refined his stance on the death penalty. He’d had to argue about it with his dad, after all. But forgiveness — that was murkier territory.
“I haven’t forgiven him,” he said. “It’s just ... I am wrestling with how culpable an individual can be when they are part of these much broader systems that clearly affect us.”
Cruz should be locked away from others. Stopped from hurting anyone else.
“But I would say that I have been trying to see him more as a human,” Robert said, “rather than the typical narrative that he’s a horrible person who is completely, irrecoverably bad and evil and that we must purge him from the Earth.”
Which brings him back to the death penalty.
“It’s about smoke and mirrors and redirection,” Robert said. “It makes it look like you’re doing something without truly changing anything at all.”