FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison this week — but not before the families of the 17 people he murdered get the chance to tell him what they think.
A two-day hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday that will conclude with Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer formally sentencing Cruz for his Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Because the jury at his penalty trial could not unanimously agree that the 24-year-old deserved a death sentence, Scherer can only sentence the former Stoneman Douglas student to life without parole — an outcome most of the families criticized.
Each family of the 14 students and three staff members Cruz murdered can speak, as can the 17 people he wounded during the seven-minute attack. The families gave highly emotional statements during the trial, but were restricted about what they could tell jurors: They could only describe their loved ones and the murders' toll on their lives. The wounded could only say what happened to them.
They were barred from addressing Cruz directly or saying anything about him — a violation would have risked a mistrial. And the jurors were told they couldn't consider the family statements as aggravating factors as they weighed whether Cruz should die.
Now, the grieving and the scarred can speak directly to Cruz, if they choose.
"We are looking forward to speaking without the guardrails that were imposed upon us," said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was murdered.
Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes, whose lawyers represent Cruz, said he has no problem with the families expressing their anger directly to Cruz.
"Rightly so," Weekes said. The sentencing hearing "is not only an accountability process, but there are also some cathartic pieces that come from it."
"Hopefully, after expressing (their anger), not only will the community be able to hear the pain they are carrying, the court will be able to hear it and we will move forward."
Cruz is not expected to speak, Weekes said. He apologized in court last year after pleading guilty to the murders and attempted murders — but families told reporters they found the apology self-serving and aimed at garnering sympathy.
The penalty trial
Cruz's guilty plea set the stage for a three-month penalty trial that ended Oct. 13 with the jury voting 9-3 for a death sentence — jurors said those voting for life believed Cruz is mentally ill and should be spared. Under Florida law, a death sentence requires unanimity.
Prosecutors had argued that Cruz planned the shooting for seven months before he slipped into a three-story classroom building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms. He fatally shot some wounded victims after they fell. Cruz said he chose Valentine's Day so it could never again be celebrated at Stoneman Douglas.
Cruz's attorneys never questioned the horror he inflicted, but focused on their belief that his birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy left him brain-damaged and condemned him to a life of erratic and sometimes violent behavior that culminated in the massacre — the deadliest mass shooting to go to trial in U.S. history.
The jury's decision to spare Cruz's life left many of the victims' families angry and in tears.
"This is insane. Everyone knows right? This is insane," Chen Wang, cousin of shooting victim Peter Wang, said at a news conference after the jury’s decision was read. "We need justice."
One by one, the family members of the victims walked up to the podium to give their statements after the verdict, all of them expressing shock and anger that the jury voted against the death penalty.
"This should have been the death penalty, 100%," Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the shooting, said moments after the verdict was read. "I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome. I cannot understand. I just don’t understand."
Her husband, Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, reacted angrily to the verdict.
"I'm disgusted with those jurors, I'm disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and not get the death penalty," he said. "What do we have the death penalty for? What is the purpose of it? You set a precedent today."
The jury's 9-3 vote
Jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told WFOR that three jurors ultimately voted for life in prison, with one of them being a "hard no" on the death penalty and another two ultimately choosing to vote against it as well.
"It didn't go the way I would've liked or the way I voted but that's how the jury system works," Thomas said. "We went through all the evidence and some of the jurors just felt that was the appropriate sentence, I didn't vote that way so I'm not happy with how it turned out, but everybody has the right to decide for themselves. It is a moral decision on their own; some of the jurors just felt that way."
He said the jurors reached their decision Wednesday, then went home to sleep on it before bringing it to the judge on Thursday morning.
Thomas said he feels bad for the families of victims and that "it hurt" to watch the decisions being read in court. "There’s nothing we could do. It’s the way the law is. And that’s how we voted," he said.
"This has been really hard on my heart … I’d rather not see anything like this ever again."
Prosecutors called for an investigation after one juror said she felt threatened by another member of the jury during deliberations.
The state attorney's office asked for law enforcement to interview the unnamed juror after she told the state attorney’s office about what "she perceived to be a threat from a fellow juror while in the jury room."
Juror Denise Cunha sent a short handwritten note to the judge the day after the trial, defending her vote for a life sentence and denying she intended to vote that way before the trial began.
"The deliberations were very tense and some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned that I would vote for life," Cunha wrote.
She did not explain her vote and it is unknown if she is the juror who complained to the state attorney’s office.
$2.5 million spent on housing, supervising Cruz, sheriff's office says
Cruz has been locked up in the Broward Main Jail in Fort Lauderdale since the day of the massacre in 2018. Since that time, the Broward Sheriff's Office said it has cost the agency over $2.5 million to house and supervise the confessed shooter.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel reports that, ahead of Cruz's formal sentencing and transfer to prison, the sheriff's office filed a motion in court seeking to recover $250,000 — the maximum amount they are entitled to under Florida law.
According to the motion, the cost of housing Cruz from Feb. 14, 2018, to Oct. 26, 2022, when the motion was filed, totaled $321,659. But the sheriff's office said the vast majority of the costs came from paying overtime to detention deputies assigned to supervise Cruz at the jail.
The newspaper reports that, in all, Cruz's confinement at the jail cost the sheriff's office $2.27 million in overtime, with the majority of the costs going to overtime to two deputies assigned to watch Cruz in his cell at all times.
Together, the costs of housing and supervising Cruz in his cell bring the total to $2,595,641, the motion said, according to the newspaper. However, the sheriff's office noted that "the actual costs incurred by BSO for housing Nikolas Cruz far exceed this amount quoted above."
Meanwhile, the state of Florida spent more than $2 million prosecuting Cruz.
What will prison be like for Nikolas Cruz?
After Cruz is sentenced, he will be transferred from the Broward County jail to the state correctional system's processing center near Miami, then later to a maximum-security prison, his lawyers have said. The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment.
Ron McAndrew, a former Florida prison warden, believes that because of Cruz's notoriety, officials at that prison will place him in "protective management," separated from other inmates, to keep him from being harmed.
Cruz's cell will be 9 feet by 12 feet with a bed, metal sink and metal toilet, McAndrew said. For one hour a day, he will be allowed alone into an outdoor cage that is usually 20 feet by 20 feet where he can exercise and bounce a basketball.
Florida prisons do not have air conditioning.
McAndrew noted that because Cruz has a life sentence, he will be last in line for education and rehabilitation programs.
Will Cruz be put in the general population?
Cruz will be kept in protective management until prison officials believe it is safe to place him into the general population, a process that could take years, McAndrew said. It is also possible that Florida could send Cruz to another state in exchange for one of its notorious prisoners, so both could have more anonymity, the former warden said.
But eventually, Cruz will be placed in the general population, McAndrew said. He will be required to bunk, work and mingle with other prisoners. At 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, Cruz could have difficulty defending himself — though he did attack and briefly pin a Broward jail guard. It is possible a more physically imposing prisoner could become his protector — "but that comes with a horrible price," McAndrew said.
Linda Beigel Schulman, whose son, teacher Scott Beigel, was murdered by Cruz, said she hopes Cruz "has the fear in him every second of his life just the way he gave that fear to every one of our loved ones whom he murdered, or the students and people that he harmed."
Craig Trocino, a University of Miami law professor, said one benefit of Cruz receiving a life sentence is that he will fade from public view; a death sentence would have brought a decade of appeals, with the possibility of a retrial, and eventually an execution. Each step would have been covered extensively.
"No one is going to hear about him anymore until he dies," Trocino said.