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Families of Parkland school shooting victims are lashing out after jury's decision


Families of those killed in the 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are angry about a Florida jury's decision to spare the life of Nikolas Cruz, the shooter. The former student pleaded guilty to killing 17 students and staff members at the Parkland school and wounding 17 others. After a three-month trial, the jury recommended Cruz get a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Fort Lauderdale.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There was stunned silence in the courtroom in Fort Lauderdale as Judge Elizabeth Scherer read the sentencing verdict for each of the 17 victims. For each one, the jury's sentence was life in prison. Many of the families wanted the death penalty. Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was one of those killed, called it a gut punch.

TONY MONTALTO: Seventeen beautiful lives were cut short by murder - heinous, preplanned, torturous murder. And the monster that killed them gets to live another day.

ALLEN: In opting for life in prison, jurors indicated they were swayed by arguments made by Cruz's lawyers, that he's, quote, "a brain-damaged, broken, mentally ill person through no fault of his own." Defense attorneys made the case that Cruz's problems began before he was born, when his mother abused drugs and alcohol. They presented expert testimony that he suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and that everyone from his adoptive mother to school counselors failed to get him the treatment he needed. On the verdict forms, jurors indicated those concerns outweighed aggravating factors that Cruz premeditated and planned the murders and that he carried them out in a heinous, atrocious and cruel manner. Ilan Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa died that day, said the sentence left him disgusted with the system.

ILAN ALHADEFF: So that means that everyone that has a mental illness should go on a killing spree? That's what we're telling this society, that we're saying that's OK because you have a mental illness?

ALLEN: The families had nothing but praise for the prosecution team, who they say made a strong case for the death penalty. Many of the families focused their anger and criticism on jurors, who they felt may have not been honest in the jury selection process. Every juror assured the court they could vote for the death penalty if it was appropriate. Alyssa Alhadeff's mother, Lori.

LORI ALHADEFF: What is the death penalty for if not for the murder and killing of 17 people?

ALLEN: Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was one of those killed by Cruz, worries this verdict sends the wrong message on school safety.

FRED GUTTENBERG: I think anyone planning a shooting right now sees that there's a path to avoid the death penalty, where it does exist. And the death penalty does exist, by the way.

ALLEN: As the families expressed their anger, Broward County's public defender, whose office represented Cruz, asked the community to respect the verdict. Amid the backlash, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told Miami CBS 4 one juror was a holdout for a life sentence.


BENJAMIN THOMAS: It really came down to a specific jury (ph) that, you know, he was mentally ill, and she didn't believe, because he was mentally ill, he should get the death penalty.

ALLEN: Following the verdict, one of the jurors delivered a letter to the judge denying rumors that she'd made up her mind to vote for life before the trial started. The deliberations were very tense, she wrote, and some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned I would vote for life. Jury foreman Thomas said, eventually, two other jurors joined her in rejecting the death penalty. Judge Scherer said next month, she'll formally sentence Cruz to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Fort Lauderdale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.