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Parkland families unleash anger at gunman, justice system after painful trial

Husband and wife Tommy and Ines Hixon were among those who spoke in court Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Tommy Hixon's father was killed in the 2018 Parkland shooting. (Amy Beth Bennett/Pool/South Florida Sun Sentinel/AP)
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Survivors and family members of those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 angrily confronted the shooter in a South Florida courtroom Tuesday, decrying his defense team’s argument that he suffers from mental illness and denouncing the state law that spared his life after the jury did not reach a unanimous verdict.

Meghan Petty said she felt “betrayed by our justice system” after enduring a trial in which she publicly shared her private pain and had to hear the sound of the gunshots that killed her younger sister — only to see the jury deliver a sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty. The jury foreman said that most jurors wanted Nikolas Cruz to face capital punishment but that three voted against it.

“He has escaped this punishment because a minority of the jury was given the power to overturn the majority decision made by people who were able to see him for what he is — a remorseless monster who deserves no mercy,” Petty said.

Unlike victim impact statements heard by the jury in the three-month sentencing trial, Tuesday’s remarks were not filtered through attorneys and were addressed not to the court but to Cruz, who sat just a few feet away, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and appearing largely expressionless behind a blue surgical mask. The gunman pleaded guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.

Parkland school shooting jury spares gunman death penalty in 2018 massacre

Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth A. Scherer cannot change the jury’s verdict, but victims are being given an opportunity to share their thoughts before she officially sentences him. Relatives of those killed and survivors did not hold back. Several said they hope he dies soon. Others wished him an excruciating life behind bars. One said he hopes Cruz’s ashes are tossed in the trash.

“I hope your every breathing moment here on Earth is miserable and you repent for your sins, Nikolas, and burn in hell,” Theresa Robinovitz, grandmother of victim Alyssa Alhadeff, said as she looked at Cruz.

But they also expressed anguish at the justice system. Cruz’s case was the deadliest U.S. mass shooting case to go to trial — and from the start, there was concern about the trauma victims and loved ones would be forced to relive. The decision to let Cruz live the remainder of his life in prison has even become a campaign issue — with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, saying they think he should have been sentenced to death.

In a recent debate, DeSantis said he wants the legislature to amend state law.

“You had no right to ask this jury for mercy. He showed no mercy when he shot my forever-14 Gina in the chest,” said Tony Montalto, whose daughter was killed. “To be clear, the system, the schools, the mental health system, law enforcement and now the justice system failed my daughter Gina and her classmates and her teachers.”

A 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced Florida to rewrite its capital punishment statute to require that death sentences be unanimous.

Ed Brodsky, a state attorney in southwestern Florida and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the legislature is likely to discuss changes in light of the Parkland case and criticism from Republicans and Democrats.

“I think in this particular case, folks in Florida and across the country thought this was an unjust sentence,” Brodsky said. “Jurors who have a complaint with the process, you only have the Florida legal structure to blame for it.”

He said one possible outcome is that the law is changed to require a supermajority of jurors — 10 — rather than a unanimous decision in death penalty cases.

Robert Dunham, director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said changing the law in Florida to allow non-unanimous death verdicts based on the Cruz case would be a mistake. Before the law changed to require a unanimous vote for the death penalty, he said, Florida had more death row exonerations than any other state.

“If you’re going to look at the Parkland outcome and decide you don’t like it so you’re going to change the system, you are making a disastrous decision,” he said.

His sister died in the Parkland massacre. He wants the gunman to live.

Many of the survivors and victim family members who spoke Tuesday told Cruz the pain he inflicted will trail them for the rest of their lives.

Stacey Lippel, a language arts teacher who narrowly escaped after closing and locking the door to her classroom, said her statement Tuesday brought “just a crumb of closure.”

“You don’t know me, but you tried to kill me,” she said, mentioning the bullet scar on her arm. “I see you in my nightmares and in my daydreams. … My hope is that you die, sooner rather than later.”

Most victims also directed their anger at Cruz’s defense team, which argued that the gunman’s troubled upbringing was a mitigating factor against the death penalty. They said Cruz was “broken” and suffered brain damage. The jury was directed to consider 41 mitigating circumstances, including factors such as mental illness that would spare Cruz from a death sentence even if he met all the other requirements.

“Mitigating factors did not exist,” said Patricia Oliver, whose 17-year-old son, Joaquin, died in the shooting. “You built that, the evil in this system.”

She said the defense attorneys’ behavior was “shameful, despicable.” At one point, she slapped the podium for emphasis and said “karma” will find them.

Families of the victims from the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. addressed gunman Nicholas Cruz before he was sentenced to life in prison. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This is what you all will face for the rest of your miserable lives,” she said. “Your sleepless nights, where you will hear your heart pounding, will be filled with regrets because the only real victims were the ones he massacred. And karma will eventually catch up to you all.”

Public defender Melisa McNeill asked the judge to instruct the speakers not to make personal comments about members of the defense team or their families. Scherer noted her argument but did not impose any restrictions on family statements.

Anne Ramsay, whose 17-year-old daughter died in the shooting, said the sense of injustice her family has experienced started with the massacre but did not end there. She said officials at the hospital her family hurried to after the shooting seemed to know her daughter’s fate but instead of consoling them sent them to a hotel near the school that police were using as a gathering area for families.

“So we went and sat for hours and hours, listening to the screamings and howlings of all the other families,” Ramsay said. “We were there until about 3 a.m., when we were the last family to be looked at. There was one family left, my family, the Black family, left until the end. What I have to say to the sheriff’s department, when people say Black lives matter, that’s how we are treated.”

She said her daughter, Helena, could have helped change that treatment for the better if she had lived.

“You took away an angel that day that could have made a difference in society,” she said.

Petty, whose sister Alaina was killed, said the jury’s verdict sent the wrong message.

“What we’ve been told here is that 17 lives are worth nothing if you can make enough excuses for your actions,” she said.

While Cruz will have a roof over his head, a bed and a plate of food for each meal, “my sister’s body is food for carrion,” Petty said. “Her roof is six feet of dirt, and her bed is a coffin.”

“She died scared,” she said. “She tried to hide behind a desk, and he shot her multiple times, they said, with one of the bullets hitting her heart. She died alone, on a dirty classroom floor. … The last time I saw her sweet face was when she was lifeless and cold, laying in a coffin. If I want to visit or talk to her, I have to drive to a cemetery and talk to a plaque with her name on it.

“Alaina will never grow up. He stopped her at 14.”