By TERRY SPENCER
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Parents, wives, children and siblings of the 17 people murdered by Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz finally got their chance after almost five years to verbally thrash him face-to-face — and those who accepted the opportunity didn’t waste it.
More will get their chance Wednesday on the second day of a hearing that will end with Cruz formally sentenced to life without parole for the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in suburban Fort Lauderdale. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has no choice but to impose that sentence as the jury in Cruz’s penalty trial could not unanimously agree that he deserved the death penalty.
Members of the victims’ families and some of the 17 wounded who survived went to a lectern about 20 feet (6 meters) from Cruz on Tuesday, stared him in the eye and let out their anger and grief, with many telling the 24-year-old they hope his remaining years are filled with the fear and pain he inflicted. Many also criticized a Florida law that requires jury unanimity for a death sentence to be imposed — Cruz’s jurors voted 9-3 on Oct. 13 for his execution.
“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,” Meghan Petty said. Her younger sister, 14-year-old Alaina, died when Cruz fired into his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle into her classroom as he stalked the halls of a three-story building for seven minutes, firing 140 shots. He had been planning the shooting for seven months.
“A person has to be incredibly sick to want to hurt another human being. Even sicker to dwell on the desire and craft a plan and unimaginably evil to execute that plan, which didn’t just hurt people but ended lives,” she said. “To add insult to murder he was even arrogant enough to plan a disguise believing that he’d be able to escape his actions while my sister lay dying on a dirty classroom floor.”
Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student and then 19, wore a school shirt so that he could blend in with fleeing students as he escaped. He was arrested an hour later.
Cruz, shackled and wearing a red jail jumpsuit, stared at Tuesday’s speakers, but showed little emotion.
Anthony Montalto III, whose older sister, 14-year-old Gina, was murdered by a bullet fired point-blank into her chest, said he was at the neighboring middle school and heard the gunshots. He said he felt a pain in his chest — he believes it was a sign of his sister’s death.
“To go from a younger brother to an only child … is a dramatic change for anyone,” he said. He then criticized the defense claim that excessive drinking by Cruz’s birth mother during pregnancy caused brain damage that led to a life of erratic and sometimes violent behavior that culminated in the shooting.
“This reality I now live in is an unfortunate truth. An even more unfortunate truth is that this country has forgotten who the victim is. The murderer is not a victim of drinking during pregnancy. He is not a victim of mental health issues. He is a murdering bastard who should be made an example of,” Montalto said.
Anne Ramsay recounted the last text she got from her 17-year-old daughter Helena, thanking her for the Valentine’s cookie she had packed for her. That afternoon, Helena also died when Cruz fired into her classroom.
“She was a lovely girl, an angel,” Ramsay said.
She said she had mixed feelings before the trial about whether Cruz should get the death penalty, but after hearing the evidence she has no doubt that would have been the proper punishment.
“You are pure evil,” she told Cruz.
Thomas Hixon’s father, athletic director Chris Hixon, was shot when he burst through a door and ran at Cruz, trying to stop him. The Navy veteran fell wounded on the floor and tried to take cover in an alcove, but Cruz walked over and shot him again.
Thomas Hixon, a Marine veteran, recalled Cruz claiming remorse a year ago when he pleaded guilty to the murders, setting the stage for the penalty trial.
“Where was your remorse when you saw my father injured and bleeding on the floor and decided to shoot him for a third time?” Hixon told Cruz. “Your defense preyed on the idea of your humanity, but you had none for those you encountered on February 14th.”
Ines Hixon, Thomas’ wife and a Navy flight officer, said she was deployed off Iran and had returned from a flight when she saw an email from her husband that his father had been killed. She assumed it was in a car crash, only finding out in a phone call he had been shot.
“When he told me what had happened, I collapsed to the floor,” she said, crying. She called Cruz “a domestic terrorist.”
“Through my service, I thought I was the one in danger but it was my family being slain back home,” she said.
AP writer Freida Frisaro in Miami contributed to this story.