FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison this week —…
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A school shooter in Florida Nicholas Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison this week – but not before the families 17 people he killed to get a chance to tell him what they thought.
A two-day hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday, culminating in U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Scherer’s formal sentencing of Cruz for the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Because the jury is on his execution could not unanimously agree that the 24-year-old deserves the death penalty, Scherer can only sentence the former Stoneman Douglas student to life in prison without parole — an outcome that most families have criticized.
Each family of the 14 students and three staff killed by Cruz can speak, as can the 17 people he injured during the seven-minute attack. Families gave highly emotional statements during the trial, but were limited in what they could tell jurors: They could only describe their loved ones and the loss of the murders in their lives. The wounded could only tell what happened to them.
They were forbidden to directly address Cruz or say anything about him – a violation that would have threatened suspension from the court. And jurors were told they could not consider the family’s statements as aggravating factors when weighing whether Cruz should die.
Now, mourners and victims can speak directly to Cruz if they choose.
“We’re looking forward to having a conversation without the fences that have been imposed on us,” said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was killed.
Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weeks, whose attorneys represent Cruz, said he has no problem with families expressing their anger directly at Cruz.
“Right,” Weeks said. The sentencing hearing “is not only a process of accountability, but also some cathartic bits that come out of it.”
“Hopefully, after expressing (their anger), not only will the community be able to hear the pain they’re feeling, but the court will be able to hear it and we’ll be able to move forward.”
Cruz is not expected to speak, Weeks said. He apologized in court last year plead guilty to murders and attempted murders, but the families told reporters that they found the apology helpful and meant to be compassionate.
That plea set the stage for a three-month trial that ended on October 13 jury vote for death sentence 9-3 — jurors said those who voted for life believed Cruz was mentally ill and should be spared. Under Florida law, a death sentence requires unanimity.
Prosecutors claimed that Cruz planned the shooting for seven months before getting into a three-story educational building, firing 140 rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle into hallways and classrooms. He shot some of the wounded after they fell. Cruz said he chose Valentine’s Day to never be celebrated at Stoneman Douglas again.
Cruz’s lawyers have never questioned the horror he caused, but have focused on their belief that his birth mother heavy drinking during pregnancy left him with brain damage and sent him into a pattern of erratic and sometimes violent behavior that culminated in the massacre, the deadliest mass shooting to be brought to justice in US history.
After his sentencing, Cruz will be transferred from the Broward County Jail to the state correctional facility near Miami and then to a maximum security prison, his attorneys said. The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment.
Ron McAndrew, a former warden at a Florida prison, believes that because of Cruz’s notoriety, prison officials will place him in “protective custody,” separate from other inmates, to keep him out of harm’s way.
Cruz’s cell will measure 9 by 12 feet (3 meters by 4 meters) with a bed, a metal sink and a metal toilet, McAndrew said. For one hour a day, he will be allowed alone in an outdoor cage, usually 20 feet by 20 feet (6 meters by 6 meters), where he can exercise and shoot a basketball. Florida prisons do not have air conditioning. McAndrew noted that because Cruz is serving a life sentence, he will be the last in line for education and rehabilitation programs.
McAndrew said Cruz will be held under protective custody until prison officials feel it is safe to release him into the general population. This process can take years. It’s also possible Florida could send Cruz to another state in exchange for one of its notorious inmates so both can have more anonymity, the former warden said.
But eventually, Cruz will be placed in the general population, McAndrew said. He will have to sleep, work and socialize with other prisoners. At 5-foot-7 (1.4 meters) tall and 130 pounds (59 kilograms), Cruz could struggle defensively — though he attack and briefly corner a Broward prison guard. It’s possible that a stronger inmate could become his defender — “but it comes at a terrible price,” McAndrew said.
Linda Beigel Shulman, whose son, teacher Scott Beigel, was killed by Cruz, said she hopes Cruz “feels the fear in himself every second of his life, as he passed that fear on to each of our loved ones that he killed, or students and people , which he harmed.”
Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami, said one of the benefits of giving Cruz a life sentence is that he would be out of the public eye; a death sentence would lead to a decade of appeals, with the possibility of retrials and, eventually, execution. Each stage would be widely covered.
“No one will hear from him again until he dies,” Trocino said.
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