Nov. 2 (Reuters) – Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 students and staff with a semi-automatic rifle at a Florida high school, was formally sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday after listening for hours to painful testimony from survivors and victims’ relatives.
A jury last month voted to spare Cruz, 24, the death penalty, instead opting for life without parole for one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history.
Cruz pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year for his February 14, 2018 frenzy, before facing the three-month criminal trial earlier this year.
Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer agreed to a prosecution request to first allow relatives of Cruz’s victims to apply to the court before the verdict was handed down. The criminal proceedings started Tuesday with victim statements.
Many victims’ relatives denounced the jury’s decision, criticizing a state law requirement that all 12 jurors must be unanimous to sentence a convict to execution.
“How much worse would the crime have to be to warrant the death penalty?” said Annika Dworet, the mother of 17-year-old victim Nicholas Dworet.
Some family members also reprimanded Cruz’s lawyers, who unsuccessfully objected to the judge on Tuesday over criticism of them and the jurors, noting that Cruz had a constitutional right to legal representation.
Many victims’ relatives addressed themselves directly to Cruz, who was sitting inscrutable behind large glasses and a COVID-19 mask at a table next to his public defenders, wearing red prison overalls and handcuffs. He took off his mask when the mother of one of his victims told him it was disrespectful to keep it up
Anne Ramsay, the mother of 17-year-old Helena Ramsay, told him he was “purely evil”; Inez Hixon called him a “domestic terrorist” for murdering her father-in-law, school athletic director Chris Hixon.
Cruz was 19 at the time of his assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, about 31 miles north of the Fort Lauderdale courthouse. He had been expelled from school.
Some survivors organized a youth-led movement for stricter gun regulations in the United States, which has the highest percentage of private gun ownership in the world and where mass shootings are on the rise.
Cruz spoke only briefly during the hearing and answered the judge’s questions about whether he understood the proceedings.
Samantha Fuentes, who shot Cruz in the leg, asked Cruz if he remembered making eye contact with her as she lay bleeding in her classroom.
“You’re a hateful bigot with an AR-15 and a god complex,” she said. “Without your stupid gun you’re nothing.”
Victoria Gonzalez, whose boyfriend, 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, was one of the murdered Cruz, told Cruz they were in the same class.
“I’m sorry you never saw the love the world can give,” she told Cruz. “My righteousness lies not in knowing whether you live or whether you die. My righteousness consists in knowing that I have experienced a love that many people experience all their lives without.”
Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; adaptation by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Pullin
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