A US jury on Thursday rejected the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, who shot and killed 17 people at his former Florida high school, opting instead for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Cruz, 24, wearing a striped sweater and large glasses, stared down expressionless at the defense table as the verdict was read while several relatives of the victims in the gallery shook their heads in disbelief.
The jury deliberated for a full day Wednesday and briefly Thursday before deciding that Cruz should receive life in prison for the February 2018 murders of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
A death penalty recommendation needed to be unanimous and one or more of the 12 jurors found that it was not justified because of mitigating circumstances.
Several relatives of victims reacted angrily to the verdict.
“I could not be more disappointed in what happened today,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was one of the students killed in the Valentine’s Day attack.
“I’m stunned. I’m devastated,” Guttenberg said. “There are 17 victims that did not receive justice today. This jury failed our families today.”
Prosecutors and Cruz’s defense team gave their closing arguments on Tuesday after a three-month trial, during which the jury saw graphic footage of the attack and listened to harrowing testimony from survivors.
Michael Satz, the lead prosecutor, said Cruz, who pleaded guilty to the murders last year, planned and carried out a “systematic massacre” and the appropriate penalty was death.
The 80-year-old Satz, who came out of retirement to try the case, ended his closing arguments by reciting the names of the 17 people who died.
Melisa McNeill, a lawyer for Cruz, urged the jurors to show compassion.
McNeill said Cruz was a troubled young man born with fetal alcohol stress disorder to a mother who struggled with homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction before putting him up for adoption.
“He was doomed from the womb and in a civilized, humane society, do we kill brain-damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” McNeill asked in her closing statement. “Do we? I hope not.”
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed, dismissed those arguments.
“This shooter did not deserve compassion,” Montalto said. “Did he show compassion to Gina when he put the weapon against her chest and chose to pull that trigger?
“Do we want people who commit atrocious acts… to be punished to the fullest extent of the law?” he asked. “Or do we want to excuse them because they had a tough time growing up?”
On February 14, 2018, the then-19-year-old Cruz walked into school carrying a high-powered semiautomatic rifle. He had been expelled a year earlier for disciplinary reasons.
In a matter of nine minutes, he killed 17 people and wounded over a dozen more.
Cruz fled by mixing in with people frantically escaping the gory scene, but was arrested by police shortly after as he walked along the street.
The shooting stunned the nation and reignited debate on gun control since Cruz had legally purchased the gun he used despite his mental health issues.
On March 24, 2018, nationwide marches inspired by school shooting survivors and parents of victims brought together 1.5 million people — the largest public turnout ever in defense of stricter gun control laws in America.
But the Parkland shooting prompted no significant reform by Congress and gun sales have continued to rise.
Thousands turned out for demonstrations organized following two other recent mass shootings: one at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 young children and two teachers, and another at a New York supermarket that left 10 Black people dead.
Those shootings helped galvanize support for the first significant federal bill on gun safety in decades.
President Joe Biden signed the bill into law in June. It included enhanced background checks for younger buyers and federal cash for states introducing “red flag” laws that allow courts to temporarily remove weapons from people who are considered a threat.
But the measure fell far short of steps Biden had called for, including an assault weapons ban.
The Justice Department reached a $127.5 million settlement in March with survivors and relatives of Parkland victims who had accused the FBI of negligence for failing to act on tips received prior to the attack that Cruz was dangerous.