FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Corey Hixon, who lives with Kabuki syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, walked out of the courtroom while Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer was reading the jury’s 17 verdict forms on Thursday in Fort Lauderdale. Corey’s mother Debra Hixon, a Broward County School Board member and the widow of Christopher Hixon, said her son walked out because he just “felt the room.” There was pain and anger.
Four years, seven months, and 13 days after Christopher Hixon left his home to go to work and didn’t come back, a Broward County jury showed Nikolas Cruz mercy and recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole — instead of the death penalty. Debra Hixon said it was difficult to understand how the jury thought that Cruz’s “life meant more than the 17″ murdered.
The 12 jurors, who attorneys selected out of nearly 2,000 Broward County residents, watched both the prosecution and the defense call on expert witnesses to try to explain what drove Cruz to plan and execute the deadliest U.S. mass shooting to reach a jury. They agreed on all of the aggravating circumstances, but there was a disagreement on the death penalty.
“The anger phase is going to take a while,” Debra Hixon said, later adding that she was going to tell Corey that Cruz was still going to be punished.
“This doesn’t change what happens in our house.”
Corey still won’t be able to get donuts with his dad every Saturday, as he testified in court when he said simply, “I miss him!”
The jurors deliberated for about seven hours. After they were dismissed, the jury’s foreman, Benjamin Thomas, said only three of the 17 jurors disagreed with the death penalty.
They stood by the defense’s mitigating circumstances, which were related to Cruz’s mental health, and decided that these outweighed the aggravating factors about the nature of the crime that the prosecution outlined during the case. Hixon and other relatives of the victims said they don’t understand how that was possible.
“It didn’t go the way I would’ve liked or the way I voted, but that’s how the jury system works,” Thomas said.
While Scherer read the verdicts, two of the seven men in the jury put their heads down as if they were mortified. One of the five women cried. Court filings after the verdict revealed the contentious nature of deliberations. One juror reported a threat that the prosecution requested be investigated by law enforcement.
The mitigating factors included Cruz’s biological mother’s use of alcohol, drugs, and nicotine. Also, a list of mental health diagnoses, which included both the antisocial personality disorder that the prosecution’s rebuttal expert diagnosed and the neurodevelopmental disorder that the defense expert was convinced could cause someone to commit murder.
THE INDIVIDUAL VERDICTS
The jury watched Cruz’s defense attorneys wipe their tears after Tom Hoyer said his son Luke was his “wonderful, glorious” surprise baby and he wished he was alive to tell him how proud he was that he took the time to play basketball with an autistic boy. It’s something, he said, he learned after his death.
“Luke is not a faceless target. He had a place in this world. His life had meaning, not only to me and my family but to many others around us. Where he was in people’s lives, it’s now just a hole. The numbness I felt after his death has worn off, and I am resigned to this reality: I don’t know if I will ever find real peace.”
Luke was the first victim in the 1200 building, so his murder is count one out of 17 in the case, prosecutors said. His father and mother, Gena Hoyer, who preferred to call him “Lukie Bear,” put their life on pause to listen to every witness — even to Dr. Terrill Tops, the forensic pathologist who studied Luke’s injuries. Gena Hoyer broke down in tears, as she walked out of the courtroom after the verdict.
Prosecutors said Luke was outside classroom 1215 with his fellow 14-year-old freshman, Martin Duque, a Mexican-American Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet who dreamed of becoming a U.S. Navy Seal. Cruz shot Martin eight times, according to Dr. Iouri Boiko, who performed the autopsy.
Luke and Martin were near their 14-year-old classmate Gina Montalto, a member of the school’s Color Guard who played soccer, and flag football. Her parents Jennifer and Anthony Montalto were in tears as Dr. Marlon Osbourne, a forensic pathologist, said Cruz shot her four times.
“The end of the gun muzzle was in contact with clothing,” said Osbourne, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy.
The jurors heard John V. Navarra, a retired teacher who taught Cruz marksmanship during JROTC, say that Cruz earned the sharpshooter badge. Prosecutors said Cruz used those skills to shoot nine students, killing three, in classroom 1216. The English class first lost Alex Schachter, 14, when Cruz shot him twice.
“Part of me will always be sad and miserable,” his father Max Schachter told the jury after he described his “sweet Alex” as a “dedicated” member of the marching band who played the trombone and the baritone.
Prosecutors said Cruz then turned to Alaina Petty, 14, a JROTC cadet, and shot her four times. Her mother, Kelly Petty, described her as “the cutest little baby,” a “mama’s girl,” a “homebody,” and a devoted member of The Fort Lauderdale Florida Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Prosecutors said Cruz then shot Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, eight times and she died of her wounds. Her parents, Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff and Dr. Ilan Mark Alhadeff, described their firstborn daughter as an honors student who was a winning debater, and the captain of her soccer team.
“A piece of my heart was not just cut out, but it was ripped out,” Dr. Alhadeff told the jury adding he can now “only live with anger” to fuel his existence.
Cruz shot six students, killing two, in adjoining classrooms 1214 and 1213, prosecutors said. Nicholas Dworet, 17, a senior and the captain of the school’s swimming team, was shot three times. He had a full swimming scholarship to the University of Indianapolis.
“We will never know if he would have reached his goal to go to the Olympics. Our hearts will forever be broken. We will always live with excruciating pain,” his mother Annika Dworet told the jury.
Prosecutors said Cruz fatally shot Dworet’s classmate Helena Ramsay, 17, a junior, four times. Her mother Anne Ramsay described her as “a beautiful, tall, graceful young woman, who played the clarinet, was a strong competent swimmer” and a fast sprinter. Athletics came easy, but she was an intellectual who was interested in “humanitarian and environmental” issues.
“Helena was murdered on her father’s birthday,” Anne Ramsay said adding, “That day will never be a celebration and can never be the same for him, and now it’s filled with pain, as is every day.”
Christopher Hixon was running toward Cruz when he shot him, prosecutors said. He crawled across the hallway to an alcove for cover where Cruz shot him again. His widow, Broward County School Board member Debra Hixon, said he was the school’s athletic director, wrestling coach, and security monitor.
“He was an extraordinary man, living an ordinary life,” she told the jury. “Everybody who was lucky enough to have a relationship with him is better because of it.”
Hixon, 49, was also a 27-year U.S. Navy veteran, with five years active and 22 in the reserves. He served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Corey Hixon, who lives with Kabuki Syndrome, a rare disorder, said he misses his Saturday walks with his dad.
“The loss of my dad has weighed heavily on me and it’s something that I have not fully recovered from and likely never will,” Thomas Hixon, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, told the jury. “Growing up seeing my dad serve our country and his community it’s what inspired me to follow in his footsteps of service.”
Cruz shot Carmen Schentrup, 16, a senior in classroom 1213, three times, prosecutors said. Dr. Iouri Boiko, a forensic pathologist, told the jury she suffered a fatal wound to the head. She would have turned 17 on Feb. 21, and had already been accepted to the University of Washington. She aspired to work as a medical researcher and find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurological disease.
Aaron Feis, 37, drove his golf cart towards danger and even though he had heard the gunshots and he was unarmed he rushed inside and ran into Cruz who shot him twice and died of his wounds, prosecutors said. He graduated from MSD in 1999 and returned to work as an assistant football coach in 2002.
Scott Beigel, 35, the school’s cross-country coach and geography and world history teacher, was trying to get as many students as possible into room 1256 before closing the door, according to teacher Stacey Lippel, who survived her injuries. Cruz shot him four times, prosecutors said.
“I miss my son today. I will miss my son tomorrow. I will miss my son for the rest of my life. I am still trying to learn to live with this every day and it’s not getting any easier,” Beigel-Schulman said. “I will never get over it. I will never get passed it. My life will never, ever be the same.”
Meadow Pollack was hiding in the alcove of classroom 1249 when she was shot six times and she died of her wounds, prosecutors said. Teacher Ernest Rospierski testified he had left his keys inside room 1249 and the door had locked behind him.
Boiko, who also performed Meadow’s autopsy, said she suffered a fatal wound to the head. Meadow, 18, a senior, was looking forward to graduation. She was an aspiring attorney who was headed to Lynn University in Boca Raton.
“To try to articulate how it has affected me would be to rip my heart out and present it to you shattered in a million pieces,” Meadow’s mother, Shara Kaplan, told the jury through tears. “It has destroyed my life.”
Pollack was with Cara Loughran,14, a freshman. Cruz shot Cara, an honors student who enjoyed Irish dancing and gymnastics, three times, prosecutors said. Her sponsor for Catholic confirmation, Isabel Dalu, told the jury Cara had a pending trip to Ireland and was excited about her upcoming 15th birthday party.
“Cara dreamed of getting her driver’s permit, and her driver’s license. She dreamed of her first date, her first kiss, and falling in love. Cara dreamed of going to homecoming and prom. She dreamed of graduating at the top of her class with all of her loved ones watching,” Dalu said. “But Cara didn’t make it to any of these milestones.”
After killing Cara, Cruz moved down the hallway on the third floor and found Joaquin Oliver, 17, a senior, in an alcove and shot him four times, prosecutors said. He was interested in civil rights, writing, art, and music and he was considering studying marketing. He was also passionate about basketball.
Jaime Guttenberg, 14, a freshman and a Dance Theatre Extreme Team, ran down the hall on the third floor, and Cruz shot her as she reached the door, prosecutors said. Jaime dreamed of going to the University of Florida and becoming a pediatric physical therapist.
Dr. Marlon Osbourne, a forensic pathologist who performed her autopsy, testified she died of gunshot wounds to the neck and torso. The jury saw a defense attorney in tears when Fred Guttenberg told the jury he couldn’t wait to teach her how to drive, throw her a Sweet 16 party, see her graduate, walk her down the aisle and be a grandfather to the two kids she had already decided she wanted to have.
“My relationship with Jaime is now through photos and memories of what was and imagining what could have been,” Guttenberg said adding he is having to deal with “immeasurable grief and suffering.”
Peter Wang, 15, a freshman was in the hallway of the west stairwell when Cruz shot him 12 times. Peter, who wanted to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was wearing his JROTC cadet uniform when he held the door to help other students escape.
Peter’s mother, Hui Zhang, who was born in China and didn’t speak English, sat near the jurors crying, as her niece read her victim impact statement. She described Peter as “respectful and giving” with a “quality of giving” and said he had a “smile that could shine through the darkness.” She said Peter died on Chinese New Year’s Eve, their favorite celebration of the year. She said it will never be that for her again.
If Scherer sentences Cruz to death, and he has exhausted all appeals, then Cruz will face execution.
Scherer set sentencing for Nov. 1. Under Florida law, Scherer cannot upgrade the sentence recommended. The prosecution asked if the relatives of the 17 victims would be able to testify and Scherer agreed.
Watch the 4 p.m. report
Watch the 5 p.m. report
Watch the 6 p.m. report