Florida school shooter avoids death penalty, gets life in prison

FORT LAUDERDALE, United States – 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 defence 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 on Wednesday and briefly on 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 defence 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.

‘Brain-damaged, mentally-ill’

Melisa McNeill, a lawyer for Cruz, urged the jurors to show compassion.

McNeill said Cruz was a troubled young man born with foetal 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?”

Gun control debate

On Feb 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.

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