FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Families of the 17 children and staff members Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz murdered cursed him to hell, wished him a painful death and called him a coward Tuesday as they got their one chance to address him directly before he is sentenced to life in prison.
For hours, parents, wives, siblings, children and some of the 17 Cruz also wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day 2018 stood 20 feet (6 meters) from him. They looked the shackled killer in the eye and gave vehement, angry and sometimes tearful statements.
Most decried that his jury voted 9-3 for death but did not reach the unanimity required under state law for that sentence to be imposed.
Cruz, 24, stared back at them, dressed in a bright red jail jumpsuit, showing no emotion behind a COVID-19 face mask. The two-day hearing will conclude Wednesday when Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer formally sentences him to life without parole.
“This creature has no redeemable value," said Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex died when he was shot through a classroom window. Speaking at Cruz but refusing to say his name, he said he hopes "other prisoners you will encounter in your new life will inflict that pain upon you, hopefully 17 times over again, until you are screaming for mercy, just like your victims.”
Schachter said that it was his birthday and that when he blew out his cake's candles Tuesday night, he would wish Cruz a painful death — and would every year until it happens.
Some of the families verbally attacked Cruz's public defenders, accusing them of misleading the jurors who voted for a life sentence into believing his birth mother's excessive drinking had left him brain damaged and unable to control himself. Some hoped that their consciences would haunt them forever and would experience the pain they have felt, with at least one parent mentioning the attorneys' children.
“The legal system should protect and impart justice, justice, justice,” Patricia Oliver said, leaning over the lectern toward the defense attorneys and accusing them of “shameful, despicable behavior.” Cruz wounded her 17-year-old son Joaquin in the leg and then tracked him into a bathroom alcove. There, Cruz fatally shot her son in the head with his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle as he raised his hand to protect himself.
“If this, the worst mass shooting to go to trial, does not deserve the death penalty, what does?" she said.
Nine other U.S. gunmen who killed at least 17 people took their own lives or were killed by police. The suspect in the 2019 deaths of 23 people at a Walmart in Texas is awaiting trial.
Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill eventually asked Judge Scherer to stop the families from attacking her and her colleagues directly, saying they had worked within the parameters of Cruz’s constitutional rights in defending him.
“I did my job, and every member of this team did our job, and we should not personally be attacked for that, nor should our children,” McNeill said, drawing a murmur from where the families sat.
Prosecutor Carolyn McCann told Scherer that the victims have the right under state law and the Constitution to “express themselves and be heard.”
When McNeill tried to respond to McCann, telling the judge she knew the parents were violating court decorum, Scherer stopped her. The two have had a testy and sometimes hostile relationship since pretrial hearings.
“Stop suggesting that I know that something is improper," Scherer said, saying she had heard enough. She took no action against the families.
The argument resumed after lunch, with Scherer yelling at and ejecting one of McNeill's assistants. The assistant had asserted that the judge would be more concerned about the statements if the parents had mentioned Scherer's own children.
Cruz’s attorneys say he is not expected to speak. He apologized in court last year after pleading guilty to the murders and attempted murders, but families told reporters they found the apology aimed at garnering sympathy. He fired 140 shots during his seven-minute attack, which he had planned for seven months.
That plea set the stage for a three-month penalty trial that ended Oct. 13 with the jury failing to reach unanimity. Jurors said those voting for life believed Cruz is mentally ill and should be spared.
That led to the current hearing and the raw emotions expressed by the families and surviving victims. This is just some of what they said to Cruz:
— “You stole him from us, and you did not receive the justice that you deserved,” said Debra Hixon, whose husband, athletic director Chris Hixon, died running at Cruz to stop him. Cruz shot him again after he fell wounded to the ground. “You’ll be sent to jail, you’ll begin your punishment, you’ll be a number, and for me you will cease to exist.”
— “We hope that you, the monster who did this to our son, endure a painful existence in your remaining days,” said Eric Wikander, the father of student Ben Wikander, who has undergone seven surgeries to repair his wounds.
— “Because of you, I check for all exits wherever I am," said teacher Stacey Lippel, who was wounded. “Because of you, I think of the worst-case scenario for myself and my family. Because of you, I will never feel safe again. I have no forgiveness in my heart for you."
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the first name of the lead defense attorney to Melisa, instead of Melissa.
Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this report.