Parkland shooter gets life in prison for deadliest US high school massacre | Parkland, Florida school shooting

A Florida jury on Thursday recommended life in prison for a former student who murdered 17 people in the nation’s deadliest high school shooting.

Nikolas Cruz, 24, killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland on Valentine’s Day 2018, shooting into numerous classrooms with an AR-15 style assault rifle during the six-minute rampage and wounding 17 more.

The sentence of life without parole, now a formality, will be imposed at a hearing on 1 November after victim impact statements are given, circuit court judge Elizabeth Scherer ruled. Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.

The jury of seven men and five women returned their verdict after seven and a half hours of deliberations, following a 60-day trial in which Cruz’s defense team argued his actions were the result of mental illness and brain damage caused by fetal alcohol syndrome.

Prosecutors had argued that Cruz, who had signaled his desire to become a school shooter in videos and drawings he made before the attack, had meticulously plotted the killings.

“It was goal-directed, it was calculated, it was purposeful and it was a systematic massacre,” state attorney Mike Satz told the court in Fort Lauderdale, arguing that Cruz was afflicted by antisocial personality disorder.

The jurors found that on all 17 counts of first-degree murder, the state had proved beyond reasonable doubt the existence of “aggravating factors”, specifically that the killings were committed in a “cold, calculating and premeditated manner”.

But in each case at least one juror found that the aggravating factors were outweighed by the mitigation offered by the defense. For a death penalty sentence, jurors would have had to be unanimous.

Family members of the victims, whose ages ranged from 13 to 49, attended the sometimes contentious trial daily, and were in court to hear the verdict of the jury, which began its deliberations on Wednesday afternoon.

The parents of Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, said they were “disgusted” that the killer was given mercy.

Talking to reporters after the hearing, her father, Ilan Alhadeff, said: “What do we have the death penalty for? What is the purpose of it? This isn’t about personal beliefs. It’s not about your religious values. It’s about the heinous crime that was committed.”

Others were in tears and hugged each other as the verdicts were read. Tony Montalto, the father of Gina Montalto, 14, told journalists later that he felt the verdicts were “unreal”.

“Today’s ruling was yet another gut punch to so many of us. The monster that killed them gets to live another day. [He] pressed the barrel of his weapon to my daughter’s chest, that doesn’t outweigh that what’s-his-name had a tough upbringing?

“Society has to re-examine who and what is a victim. My beautiful Gina, the other sons, daughters, spouses and fathers, they were the victims here. This shooter did not deserve compassion.”

Fred Guttenberg, father of Jaime Guttenberg, 14, said: “This jury failed our families today. This decision only makes it more likely that the next mass shooting will be attempted.”

Debra Hixon, widow of the school’s athletic director, Chris Hixon, 49, said of the shooter: “He should give thanks to God that someone had grace and mercy for him that he did not share with those other people.

“I hope that he understands the gift that he’s been given. I doubt that he will.”

Cruz, in a multicolored sweatshirt and gray pants, sat mostly expressionless through the hour-long hearing, occasionally removing his large-frame spectacles, and looking up once at a cry from the public gallery.

He pleaded guilty a year ago to 17 counts of murder, leaving the jury to decide only between a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

The shooting prompted student survivors to found the March for Our Lives gun safety advocacy group, and led to changes in Florida gun laws, including raising the minimum wage for firearms purchases to 21.

The massacre affected the community deeply, and had significant recriminations. Two Stoneman Douglas students later killed themselves, one a close friend of one of the victims. The Broward county sheriff, Scott Israel, was removed by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, for perceived leadership failures.

Additionally, families of the victims and survivors reached a $127.5m settlement with the Department of Justice earlier this year after the FBI ignored warnings that Cruz intended to “shoot up a school”.

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