FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Anguished families of the 17 people slain by Nikolas Cruz told the Parkland school shooter at his sentencing hearing Tuesday that he would “burn in hell.”
After a nearly three-month trial and more than four years after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, jurors voted in October to spare Cruz’s life. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will sentence him to life in prison this week.
The jury’s decision to decline the death penalty was met with dismay and disgust by the victims’ family members after the verdict – and on Tuesday, the first day of the two-day hearing.
David Robinovitz, grandfather of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, referred to Cruz only as “Parkland murderer” in court Tuesday. When the gunman dies, Robinovitz said, he hoped Cruz’s ashes would be thrown into a landfill.
“You know why?” he asked. “Because garbage to garbage.”
Cruz, 24, injured 17 others on Valentine’s Day 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Though jurors found aggravating factors such as Cruz’s cold and calculated behavior were enough to warrant a death penalty, at least one juror believed they were outweighed by mitigating circumstances – Cruz’s troubled upbringing, age or mental illness struggles.
Here’s what the victims’ family members said in court ahead of Cruz’s sentencing:
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Debra Hixon, the wife of the school’s athletic director, Chris Hixon, addressed her husband’s killer directly.
“I wish nothing for you today,” she said to Cruz, who was masked and unblinking. “After today, I don’t care what happens to you.”
Cruz shot Hixon as he confronted him on the first floor of the freshman building, then circled back and shot him again once Hixon crawled into an alcove in the hallway for cover.
People are born looking like their parents, and they die looking like their decisions, Hixon’s sister, Natalie Hixon, told the gunman. Her brother died a hero, she said.
Theresa Robinovitz, Alyssa Alhadeff’s grandmother, said she has an idea for how the gunman might spend his life in prison: writing a book about how he and his defense counsel “beat the judicial system and got away with murder.”
How could the slaying of 17 people not warrant the death penalty? she asked.
“I hope your ever-breathing moment here on Earth is miserable,” she said. “Repent for your sins, Nikolas. And burn in hell.”
Teacher Stacey Lippel has a scar on her arm and the memory of the gunman aiming at her that day. She’s a different person now, she said. Broken and altered, fearful, damaged, guilted, sad.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that horrible day,” she said.
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Lippel held her classroom door open and shepherded students inside while the gunman fired at them from the end of the hall. The judge thanked her before she stepped away from the podium.
“You were a hero to those children that day,” Scherer said.
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Prayers for torment and torture during the gunman’s prison sentence were common among the families’ statements. None said they could fathom three jurors’ decision to spare his life.
If the worst mass shooter to go to trial doesn’t deserve execution, who does? asked Patricia Oliver, mother of Joaquin Oliver. Joaquin was among those who flooded out of their third-floor classrooms at the sound of the fire alarm only to meet Cruz at the end of the hall.
Jurors showed more compassion to the gunman than he did her son, Joaquin’s mother said. She was the first to address the gunman’s team of public defenders, who she said exhibited “shameful, despicable behavior.”
Evil is in Cruz’s system, Oliver said, so it’s in theirs now, too. She’s beyond feeling anger – all she has now is emptiness and grief, she said.
“I am broken,” Oliver repeated as she pointed to Cruz and each of his attorneys.
Tom Hoyer, whose son Luke was shot to death in the first-floor hallway, fist-bumped Patricia as she returned to her seat in the courtroom gallery.
Meghan Petty, whose 14-year-old sister, Alaina, was killed, said the gunman has gotten everything he wanted, while Alaina died afraid, hiding behind a desk on a dirty classroom floor.
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Cruz fired 139 rounds of ammunition, Petty said, in his rampage. That’s 138 chances after his first bullet to stop, she said.
Their deaths don’t matter “because his life wasn’t cupcakes, rainbows and sunshine,” Petty said. He’ll spend the rest of his life with a roof over his head, while Petty spends hers with Alaina’s body beneath her feet, she said.
Attorneys quarrel over statements critiquing Cruz’s defense counsel
Max Schachter, whose son Alex bled to death at his desk, said he’s sickened by Cruz’s defense team. Cruz hunted down children and staff, tortured them and “blew their heads apart like a water balloon,” Schachter said.
“That creature has no redeemable value,” he said.
His attitude toward the defense echoed that of family members who spoke before him. Once Schachter returned to his seat, Cruz’s lead defense attorney, Melisa McNeill, objected to the sentiment.
“I did my job, and every member of this team did their jobs,” she told the judge. “We should not personally be attacked for that.”
McNeill asked Scherer to preclude the victims’ families from threatening the defense team and their loved ones. Carolyn McCann, a prosecutor, rejected the request, calling the statements appropriate.
“The victims have every right to express themselves,” she said. “What the defense is doing is illegal, to try to curtail these victims’ rights under the law, and it is unconscionable.”
The judge made note of McNeill’s objection but did not ask upcoming speakers to amend their statements.
Cruz was not expected to speak, his attorneys said.
Contributing: Ashley R. Williams, USA TODAY; The Associated Press