© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘A gut punch’: Families of Parkland victims rage against shooter’s life sentence

Gena Hoyer holds a photograph of her son, Luke, who was killed in the 2018 shootings, as she awaits the verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Cruz will be sentenced to life without parole for the 2018 massacre of 17 people. That sentence comes after the jury announced that it could not unanimously agree that Cruz should be executed. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
/
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Gena Hoyer holds a photograph of her son, Luke, who was killed in the 2018 shootings, as she awaits the verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Cruz will be sentenced to life without parole for the 2018 massacre of 17 people. That sentence comes after the jury announced that it could not unanimously agree that Cruz should be executed. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Minutes after Nikolas Cruz was spared the death penalty, family members whose loved ones were violently taken from them at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School said the justice system had failed them. Local and state officials also expressed their disappointment.

Disgust. Devastation. Betrayal.

Family members whose loved ones were violently taken from them at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School say the justice system has failed them.

“I am disgusted with our legal system. I am disgusted with those jurors,” said Ilan Alhadeff, the father of 14 year old Alyssa Alhadeff, speaking minutes after the verdict was read out. “The system continues to fail us.”

Parents and spouses of the 17 people murdered on Feb. 14, 2018 cradled their heads in their hands as Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer read the unanimous verdict of life in prison without the possibility of parole on Thursday morning.

For some, the news was utterly overwhelming: the mother of 15 year old Peter Wang – who survivors testified died trying to help other students – was crying so intensely she had to be helped out of the press room by family and a victim’s advocate.

The jury determined that mitigating circumstances – including that the shooter suffered brain damage and abuse as a child – outweighed the nature of the crimes, described by prosecutors as heinous, calculated and cruel.

Gena Hoyer awaits the verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Hoyer's son, Luke, was killed in the 2018 shootings.
Amy Beth Bennett/AP
/
Pool South Florida Sun Sentinel
Gena Hoyer awaits the verdict in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. Hoyer's son, Luke, was killed in the 2018 shootings.

Lori Alhadeff – who was elected to the Broward County School Board on a campaign of school safety and accountability after her daughter was murdered – said she was completely shocked by the decision.

“It wasn't even a doubt in my mind that this would be the death penalty. I'm beyond disgusted,” she said. “What is the death penalty for if not for the murder and killing of 17 people?”

She later tweeted, "I didn't think I was able to feel more disappointment & heartbreak."

Tony Montalto – father of 14 year old Gina Montalto and president of the advocacy organization Stand With Parkland – said the decision was “yet another gut punch” to the families whose lives were forever changed that day – and to the people they lost.

“Our justice system should have been used to punish the shooter to the fullest extent of the law. Not as an act of revenge, but to protect our nation’s schools, to stop others from attacking the future of this country,” Montalto said.

In a country where state and federal lawmakers have repeatedly refused to pass more restrictive gun control laws that would significantly limit access to deadly weapons, families of the victims had hoped the imposition of the death penalty would help deter the next school shooter.

“I think that it puts all school children in jeopardy and certainly sends the wrong message,” Montalto said.

State and local officials react

“There are crimes for which the only just penalty is death,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist tweeted. “The Parkland families and community deserved that degree of justice. I will continue to pray for healing for the families and every person impacted by this tragedy.”

Annette Taddeo, the democratic nominee for Florida’s 27th District wrote on Twitter. "Prayers this morning to every family affected by the Parkland tragedy, many have become close friends throughout this process and I will always stand with you."

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Rick Scott tweeted: “While I have faith in our justice system, today’s decision is not what many of us expected.

"I can only pray that as each phase of this painful process concludes, those whose hearts were torn by this monster find some measure of closure, and that our Heavenly Father delivers to them the peace of knowing that they will one day be reunited in His kingdom with those we so tragically lost.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was disappointed to hear about the verdict, saying he didn’t think anything other than the death penalty was appropriate.

The governor also voiced his frustration over how long it took to get to this point: “They used to do this … he would have been executed in six months. He’s guilty. Everybody knew that from the beginning and yet it takes years and years in this legal system that is not serving the interest of victims.”

In her acknowledgment of the jury’s recommendation, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Vickie L. Cartwright said that additional mental health personnel are being sent to schools throughout the district — and are on standby to assist those in need.

“Our District understands that the jury’s recommendation in the sentencing phase of the trial will impact our students, staff, families and the entire community,” Carwright said in a statement.

The district said that mental health resources are also accessible online for students, families and community members.
Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.
Katie Lepri Cohen