Why life in prison let families down

US court jurors ruled on Thursday that Nikolas Cruz, the self-confessed murderer of 17 people in one of the worst school shootings in US history, should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. . The jury thus ruled out the possibility of the death penalty.

Cruz killed 14 students and 3 staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018. He confessed to the murders in October of last year.

He is now awaiting the final sentence, which will be announced by the judge by Nov. 1, after the Prosecutor’s Office filed a request for the victims’ families to be heard before the decision.

The case is considered the deadliest weapon attack ever tried in the US – there were larger massacres, but the perpetrators died or took their own lives during the crimes.

The judicial process concluded this Thursday did not analyze the defendant’s guilt, but the penalty that corresponded to him: life imprisonment or death.

On several occasions, jurors unanimously acknowledged that Cruz’s actions put “many people at risk” and were “premeditated, calculated, heinous and cruel”.

Again and again they said that the acts were worthy of the death penalty.

However, the judge said that one (or more) jurors agreed that it was not possible to establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the aggravating factors in the case outweigh the mitigating factors.

Alcohol as ‘decisive factor’

Cruz’s main defense was based on the difficult circumstances in which he grew up.

Specifically, attorneys representing the young killer focused on his birth mother and the effects her alcohol and drug problems had on Cruz’s fetal development.

According to witnesses for the defense, Brenda Woodward, Cruz’s natural mother, “far exceeded” the limit amount of drinking that doctors believe could affect pregnant women.

One of the medical experts who served as a witness for the defense said that “I have never seen a pregnant woman drink so much.”

With that, the defense tried to show that the shooting had been the result of “unavoidable” mental problems, stemming from a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome.

“His fate was sealed from the womb, and in a civilized, humane society, do we really kill people who are brain-damaged, mentally ill, broken?” asked attorney Melissa McNeill in her closing arguments.

Cruz was adopted shortly after his birth, in a private arrangement between his adoptive parents, Roger and Lynda Cruz, and his birth mother.

Roger Cruz died of a heart attack when Nikolas was 5 years old and, according to what was said during the trial, his adoptive mother felt overwhelmed by raising him and his brother alone.

Nikolas Cruz was not an easy child, as official documents reveal.

He was diagnosed with depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), behavioral disorder, among other disorders, according to records from the local Department of Children and Families.

The mother also told agency officials that Cruz had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and temper issues.

Lynda Cruz died in November 2017, six months before the shooting.

Defense attorney McNeill argued that a death sentence “wouldn’t change anything” and “wouldn’t bring the victims back”.

The interviews

As the defense’s main argument relied on Cruz’s mental aptitude, the prosecution subpoenaed forensic psychiatrist Charles Scott and neuropsychologist Robert Denney to testify.

The two were able to interview Cruz on separate occasions, and the prosecution showed videos of these conversations during the trial – this practice is unusual, as shootings like Parkland’s often end in the killer’s death.

In the recordings, Cruz says that he had thought about carrying out the massacre for “a long time” and that he had used videos from previous cases, such as the Columbine High School (1999) or the Virginia Tech (2007), for inspiration and “training”.

“I studied a lot of killers and how they did it, their plans, what they had and what they used,” says Cruz calmly, who appears in handcuffs in the videos.

About the night before the shooting, Cruz told investigators he couldn’t sleep, imagining what the recoil would be like from the semi-automatic rifle he used in the attack.

In his closing arguments, prosecutor Michael Satz recalled words spoken by Cruz before the massacre. “It is said that what one writes and what one says is a window into one’s soul.”

“Some of the statements the defendant wrote on his YouTube account were, ‘No mercy, no questions asked. I will murder children. I would love to see families suffer’.”

“That takes planning,” the lawyer added, “is anticipating not just the infliction of pain” on victims, but “anticipating how pain, fear and death will affect families.”

Indignation

The jury’s decision that spared Nikolas Cruz the death penalty was described as “surreal” and “wrong” by relatives of the victims at a press conference held after the announcement.

“I couldn’t be more disappointed by what happened today,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter was among the students killed.

“I’m stunned. I’m devastated,” he said. “There are 17 victims who did not receive justice today. This jury failed our families today.”

At the time of the sentencing announcement, Tony Montalto – who lost his daughter, Gina, in the attack – repeatedly shook his head.

Other family members could be seen crying. Corey Hixon – whose father Christopher Hixon died in the attack – got up and left the room as soon as he heard the jury’s recommendation for a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Ilan Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed, said the gunman was “not a human being – he’s an animal”.

“I pray that the animal suffers every day of its life in prison,” he said. “And may he have a short life.”

Gordon Weekes, the Broward County public defender in charge of the defense team, urged the public to “respect the process” that led to the verdict.

He added that he believes the decision marks a “solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing process that is necessary for this community.”

Both Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and his electoral opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, said they believed the gunman should have received the death penalty.

“I just don’t think anything else is appropriate except a death sentence in this case,” DeSantis said.

*With reporting by Sam Cabral and Bernd Debusmann Jr.

– This text was published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-63251644

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