‘It will be very emotional:’ Parkland school shooter sentencing hearing to be held Tuesday

Legal analysts: Expect gut-wrenching testimony from family members of the murdered

PARKLAND, Fla. – Next week is the sentencing hearing for confessed Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.

A divided jury recommended his punishment be life in prison without parole for shooting and killing 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School staff members and students with an AR-15-style rifle on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

The penalty phase 12-member jury had a task like no other in U.S. history as this was the deadliest mass shooting in America to go before a jury.

Their recommendation of life stunned and saddened many of the family members of the murdered who, following the verdict, spoke about their anguish.

Victim family members are entitled to speak during the sentencing hearing where 17th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer is scheduled to formally impose the jury’s recommended sentence.

Legal analyst David Weinstein told Local 10 News’ Christina Vazquez that while they are entitled to tell the Court what they believe the punishment should have been, “it won’t change the sentence, but they all have that right. While they will be reminded every day of the loss of their loved one, in some way, this may provide a small piece of catharsis for them, so that they can have their final word towards the defendant when they stand up and speak in court next week.”

The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 1, and could continue into the next day depending on how many victims plan to speak.

There are 34 total shooting victims -- 17 killed, 17 wounded.

It was Cruz’s guilty pleas in 2021 to the 17 murders that set up the penalty phase, which started with jury selection in April and concluded with the recommended jury verdict of life in October.

RELATED LINK: Hear trial testimony from the 17 wounded in the Valentine’s Day 2018 Parkland school shooting and the trial victim impact statements for the 17 murdered.

Weinstein said next week’s sentencing hearing provides the victim’s family members a chance to “let the judge know what they think is the appropriate punishment, which they couldn’t do during the victim impact statement. There is no time limit unless the court chooses to set one.”

He also said the defendant is required to be there.

“We will hear about how they have suffered, the effect that this has had on them, and what they believe should be the appropriate penalty. And within reason, they will be able to direct whatever statements they have, both to the judge and the defendant,” Weinstein said. “It will be very emotional for these people. I suspect it will be very emotional for everyone who has been watching this process. But this is going to be the last step before the judge imposes the sentence” recommended by the divided jury of life in prison without parole.


The jury’s sentence recommendation of life in prison without parole was controversial. One juror described deliberations as “tense” in a letter filed with the court.

RELATED LINK: Parkland shooting juror explains why murder weapon was brought to the deliberation room, another describes deliberations as “tense.”

Local 10′s gavel-to-gavel reporter Christina Vazquez, who was in the courtroom as the verdict forms were being read, said when the jurors walked into the courtroom, two young men looked anguished as they hunched over in the jury box, head down, palms to their foreheads while two female jurors began to tear just as the judge began to read aloud their verdict forms -- a painstaking process for the grief-stricken family members of the murdered who were present to bear witness to the proceeding.

RELATED LINK: Meet the Jurors.

A Parkland penalty phase juror confirmed for Vazquez later that evening that there was friction between the 12-member panel.

She said the ones who could not look at the family members and appeared physically pained during the process were struggling with seeing family members looking at them with hope in their eyes and not being able to look back knowing the verdict recommendation.

RELATED LINK: ‘Secondary trauma’ likely to affect Parkland jurors if it hasn’t already, mental health experts say.

That juror also said she felt at once “devastated” and “ashamed,” adding that while nine of them believed death was the appropriate punishment for each count, three voted for life, leading to a recommendation of life in prison without parole for all 17 murder counts.

In Florida, a death-qualified jury must be unanimous in recommending death.


During her closing arguments, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill told jurors that the penalty phase of the trial is not about accountability.

She said her client took responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty and asked them to consider what shaped him, being poisoned in the womb by an alcohol and drug-addicted birth mother, and to consider the actions of his adoptive mother who they argued during the trial was inept at managing his life struggles with learning delays, anxiety and aggression -- underpinned, their experts argued, by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“Do we kill brain-damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” she asked. “I hope not,” telling them that mercy is not earned, but rather bestowed.

RELATED LINK: Defense asks the jury to spare the life of “broken” Parkland school shooter; prosecution asks for death.

Lead prosecutor Mike Satz reminded jurors during his closing argument of the Parkland shooter’s methodical planning for mass murder.

He researched firearms, school shootings, the school’s bell schedule, and even the “good songs to play while killing people.”

State experts said Cruz is a self-serving, conniving case of antisocial personality disorder. He recalled the harrowing testimony from medical examiners about the heartbreaking way the murder victims died when Cruz’s high-velocity bullets tore through their bodies obliterating tissue, organs and bone.

Jurors during the trial also walked the path the shooter did through the 1200 building’s bloodstained hallways and classrooms, preserved as a crime scene since the grisly 2018 school shooting.

RELATED LINK: “Felt like a mausoleum.” Only five members of the media were allowed to tour the 1200 building after the jurors, including Local 10′s Christina Vazquez. She shares the experience of walking into the building, preserved as a crime scene.

Satz also had the jury view surveillance video of the brutal attack, which shows Cruz hunting school hallways for victims with vigorous aggression.

“It is un-relentlessly cruel,” Satz stated, describing the mass school shooting as a “systemic massacre.”

While the jury did find that the state proved aggravating factors, like the murders being especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel and committed in a cold, calculated, premeditated manner beyond a reasonable doubt, three of the 12 did not think those aggravating factors outweighed the reasons for life presented by the defense.

“Although there is never going to be closure for any of the next of kin, who lost a loved one, during this process, this will be in fact, the closure of the court process,” explained Weinstein. “There will be no appellate hearings, there will be no potential for another penalty phase trial down the road. So as far as having to appear back in a courtroom, again, this is going to be the closure on that phase of the process.”


“Based on the way that the law is written,” said Weinstein, “and the way that the courts have established the process, it had to be a unanimous verdict.”

Some political and legal analysts expect the Parkland sentence could ignite renewed calls to change Florida’s death penalty law.

Gov. Ron DeSantis weighed in on the issue the day the verdict forms were read, stating there is a need for reform.

Back in 2017, the laws in Florida changed, requiring a unanimous jury to recommend the death penalty. DeSantis said he wants to challenge these laws of requiring a unanimous jury to recommend death, possibly going back to majority rules.

“I don’t know how those jurors are going to live with themselves,” said Tony Montalto after the verdict forms were read.

Montalto’s daughter, Gina, was killed in the shooting.

“I don’t know how they didn’t have a full, long debate about the evidence in this case,” he said.

Weinstein said in terms of accountability, “the defense was right. He owned up to what he did. And he said that he was accountable for having committed these crimes. So then under the process, the focus became what is the appropriate punishment that should be imposed on him for his accepting responsibility for the fact that he killed 17 people, and that he injured 17 others, and what the state thought was the appropriate punishment was the death penalty. And what the defense fought for as the appropriate punishment and convinced three jurors that that was the correct punishment, was life imprisonment.”

Since the 2018 school shooting, several of the family members of the murdered have advocated for sensible gun reform legislation.

Many have vowed to continue that work.

“There’s another way to look at accountability,” said Weinstein. “That is, who’s accountable for putting the weapon in the hands of the defendant to do this? And that is what we have seen people go to Washington, go to Tallahassee, and trying to get our legislators to impose accountability on another group of people. And that’s something that’s going to carry out long after the life sentences imposed on Nikolas Cruz. The accountability question becomes one of a larger picture.”

In addition to gun reform, parents and spouses of the Parkland murdered advocate for the national implementation of school safety best practices.

Tony Montalto is the President of Stand with Parkland which focuses on public safety reforms, “addressing the root causes of violence in our schools. Mental health, easy access to weapons and lack of security all contribute to this American epidemic.”

The organization’s Secretary is Phil Schentrup, father of murder victim Carmen Schentrup. And its treasurer is Tom Hoyer, father of murder victim Luke Hoyer.

Max Schachter, father of MSD marching band trombone and baritone player and murder victim Alex Schachter, is a school shooting prevention advocate. He has championed knowledge sharing on the best practices of school safety through the nonprofit Safe Schools for Alex.

This includes leading discussions across the country with school districts, law enforcement, parents, and students to provide critical information from ‘School Shooter Warning Signs’ to steps school administrators can take to improve safety.

“Our leaders need to make safe schools a year round priority, not just after a tragedy,” Schachter said. “If we just implemented lessons learned from past school violence schools would be much safer.”

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."