A gunman who opened fire at a US high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, killing 17 and wounding 17 others, has been sentenced to life in prison without parole, capping two days of emotional statements from family members of victims.
Wednesday’s sentencing, which was handed down by Judge Elizabeth Scherer, was an all-but-forgone conclusion after a jury in October could not unanimously agree that 24-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the attack, deserved the death penalty.
They voted 9-3 in favour of his execution, falling short of the legal requirement and instead recommending life without parole.
While the issue has divided survivors and family members of the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, many told Cruz he had averted true justice in the case.
“He has escaped this punishment because a minority of the jury was given the power to overturn the majority decision made by people who were able to see him for what he is – a remorseless monster who deserves no mercy,” said Meghan Petty.
Petty’s 14-year-old sister Alaina was killed by Cruz when he fired more than 140 shots from an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle during the February 17, 2018, attack.
She was among a number of family members who took to the lectern in the courthouse about six metres (20 feet) from Cruz, the first time they had the opportunity to confront the convicted attacker directly.
“I wish no peace for you,” said Ines Hixon, whose father-in-law, school athletics director Chris Hixon, was killed in the attack. “I wish nothing but pain. And I hope that every breath you take you remember that’s a breath that you stole.”
Others refrained from speaking at the hearings, with Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, tweeting “it simply won’t change reality or the way I feel”.
“The reality is that I will still visit Jaime at the cemetery and the monster’s fate will not change. It has already been decided.”
The sentencing capped a more than four-and-a-half-year-long saga that began with the attack and Cruz’s arrest an hour later.
In 2021, Cruz pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder, with his defence arguing during his penalty hearing that Cruz’s mother’s use of drugs and alcohol had permanently damaged his brain.
During the two days of hearings, Cruz, shackled and wearing a red jail jumpsuit, stared quietly at the speakers, but showed little emotion.
The judge commended the families and wounded who testified, calling them strong, graceful and patient. “I know you are going to be OK, because you have each other,” Scherer said.
The attack galvanised a renewed youth movement calling for gun control in the United States, which has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world and where mass shootings and gun attacks at schools have become regular occurrences.
Several survivors of the attack were prominent proponents of a federal gun safety bill that gave funding for crisis intervention to states and expanded a ban on gun ownership for people convicted of domestic violence against a romantic partner.
The legislation was the first gun control measure passed by the federal government in decades, but was considered by advocates to be only a modest success, with efforts for more stringent controls, including a federal ban on assault weapons, continuing to fail.
In March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation agreed to pay nearly $130m to settle several lawsuits accusing the agency of failing to properly investigate tips on Cruz ahead of the attack. The FBI said the settlements did not amount to an admission of fault.