By Kevin Deutsch
Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who fatally shot 17 people and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018, will spend life in prison rather than die for his crimes, a jury decided Thursday.
At least one of the 12 Broward County jurors tasked with deciding whether Cruz should spend life in prison without parole, or be sentenced to death, found there were mitigating factors in the death penalty case just one day after the start of deliberations.
Under Florida law, a death sentence must be rendered unanimously by all 12 jurors. Thursday’s verdict means at least one juror found “one or more mitigating circumstances was established by the greater weight of the evidence.”
The aggravating factors in the case did not outweigh the mitigating circumstances weighing against the death penalty, the jury found.
Under state law, that means Cruz will spend life in prison without parole instead of being put to death by the state of Florida.
As Judge Elizabeth Scherer read the verdicts aloud in court, families in the courtroom gallery looked stunned and angry. Some shook their heads. At least one person walked out.
Thursday’s verdict was the culmination of the penalty phase of Cruz’s trial, which followed his pleading guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in Oct. 2021.
The jury heard months of arguments and testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution and Cruz’s defense. Prosecutors used graphic autopsy and crime scene photos, videos, vivid testimony from survivors and parents, and a tour of the still-preserved crime scene to make the case Cruz should be put to death by the state.
Cruz’s lawyers argued their client suffered from a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder because of his mother’s drinking. They argued that, through no fault of his own, the killer did not receive the necessary care for his issues.
They told jurors the mitigating factors meant Cruz should spend life in prison rather than be put to death.
Cruz’s guilt was never in question in the mass shooting case, given his confession to the crimes early in the investigation.
The killer, who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, took an Uber to the high school on Feb. 14, 2018, carrying an AR-15 assault rifle and 11 bullet cartridges in his bags, along with a bulletproof vest.
Once inside, he opened fire in a busy school building, targeting students and staff members.
The murders devastated Parkland and left the United States in mourning.
They also led the Florida Legislature to pass limited gun reform, inspired vocal student activism across the nation, and raised questions about school security in Broward County.
The victims killed in the attack were Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Chris Hixon, 49; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
- Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning crime journalist and author. A graduate of Florida International University, Kevin has worked on staff at The Miami Herald, New York Daily News, and The Palm Beach Post.