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NEW YORK – Acknowledging that the actions of Nikolas Cruz were heinous, the archbishop of Miami said the decision to give him life in prison without the possibility of parole is a “severe and just punishment” that allows him “to continue to reflect on the grave harm he caused.”
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty last year to fatally shooting 17 people – 14 students and three teachers – and injuring 17 others on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2018, in the freshman building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
A jury trial in the case began in July, focusing on whether he should receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Prosecutors requested the death penalty. A jury of seven men and five women decided on Oct. 13 to give him a life sentence.
After the decision, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami reiterated the church’s position against the death penalty, saying that “modern society has the means to protect itself without the death penalty.”
“Human dignity – that of the convicted as well as our own – is best served by not resorting to the extreme and unnecessary punishment of capital punishment,” Wenski said in an Oct. 13 statement.
Families of the victims, however, expressed their disappointment in the decision.
“This should have been the death penalty 100 percent,” Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa, was killed, said at a news conference after the decision was announced. “Seventeen people were brutally murdered on Feb. 14, 2018. I sent my daughter to school, and she was shot eight times. I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome.”
Chen Wang, a cousin of shooting victim Peter Wang called for justice, saying the decision is “insane.”
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed in the attack said that “this jury failed our families today,” adding that “17 families did not receive justice.”
Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous recommendation from jurors. The jury found that there were aggravating factors to warrant the death penalty for each of the 17 victims, but they also found mitigating factors in the case.
Mitigating factors are defined as any fact of circumstance that lessens the severity or culpability of a criminal act. For Cruz, those factors centered on his turbulent early life.
Cruz’s attorney, Melisa McNeill, had previously highlighted his birth mother’s drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy, and that Cruz showed signs from an early age of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and personality disorder. She also cited his academic and social struggles in school that began at an early age, and the death of his adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz in 2017 that removed stability from his life.
Wenski cited Cruz’s troubled past as a reason that a life sentence was justified.
“While not excusing his actions, it is clear that multiple and systematic breakdowns with family services, police, and the public school system failed him and the rest of us as well,” Wenski said.
“Seemingly nobody recognized the inadequacies in Mr. Cruz’s life or the state of his mental health,” the archbishop added. “His numerous threats of violence that preceded the mass murder were addressed inadequately, if at all.”
Wenski concluded his statement reiterating that “there is no question that Mr. Cruz’s actions were heinous.”
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally issue the life sentences at a hearing on Nov. 1. Under Florida law, she cannot depart from the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence. Victims’ families will be given the chance to speak before a formal sentence is entered.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg