FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – During the Parkland school shooter’s penalty phase, a group of grieving mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, and friends delivered victim impact statements through tears to the jury. They were only allowed to describe the victims and their loss. Those limitations no longer applied on Tuesday.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer allowed them to speak directly to Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder last year. Debra Hixon, a widow, stood behind a podium, faced Cruz, and said, “You stole him from us and you did not receive the justice that you deserved.”
The Broward School Board member’s husband, Christopher Hixon, was the school athletic director, wrestling coach, school monitor, and a 27-year U.S. Navy veteran. He died trying to stop Cruz during the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“You were given a gift, a gift of grace and mercy, something you did not show to any of your victims. I wish nothing for you today,” Debra Hixon said. “After today, I don’t care what happens to you. You’ll be sent to jail, you’ll begin your punishment, you’ll be a number, and for me, you will cease to exist.”
Cruz, 24, was 19 years old when he walked into his former high school with an AR-15-style rifle. It took him about seven months to plan the attack and just seven minutes to execute it, prosecutors said. His guilty plea last year prompted the recent penalty phase that resulted in a divided jury and a sentence of life in prison.
The jury’s majority wanted the death penalty, but in 2016 Florida law started to require unanimous agreement. Three of the 12 sided with Cruz’s defense that his late biological mother’s alcohol abuse while pregnant had damaged his brain and that his mental health had declined through no fault of his own.
Many of the victims’ relatives who spoke Tuesday disagreed with the defense.
“You are unfortunately living proof that evil does exist in our world and you have proven that you have nothing positive to contribute to society,” said Thomas Hixon, a U.S. Marine and one of the two sons of Christopher Hixon.
It Cruz about seven months to plan the attack and just seven minutes to execute it, prosecutors said. The jurors saw the videos showing his dexterity. He used some of the skills he had learned from The Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps marksmanship team at MSD. Thomas Hixon said he had also been a member of a JROTC marksmanship team and knows Cruz knew safety rules.
“You are not going to be a case study or provide some kind of breakthrough insight into the mind of a school shooter,” Thomas Hixon said. “You are instead going to be relegated to a name on a tombstone that no one ever visits.”
As more of the victims’ relatives spoke, Cruz sat in handcuffs next to Casey Secor, his capital defense attorney, and in front of a row of Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies. He wore a light blue surgical face mask and a jail-issued jumpsuit. He listened intently and in silence without displaying any emotion.
“As a service member, I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And to the defendant, that’s exactly what I view you as, a domestic terrorist, and everyone that does these heinous acts like you,” said Ines Maria Hixon, who is married to Thomas Hixon.
Stacey Lippel, a language arts teacher who was injured while holding the door to allow students to find shelter in classroom 1255, also spoke to Cruz, who killed her students 18-year-old Meadow Pollack and 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver, and her neighboring colleague Scott Biegel. She said she was “broken.”
“Because of you, I check for all exits wherever I am. Because of you, I think of the worst-case scenario for myself and my family. Because of you, I will never feel safe again. I have no forgiveness in my heart for you,” Lippel said. “You are a monster with no remorse, and every breath you take is a breath wasted.”
Lippel said Cruz was a “monster with no remorse.” Before she walked away from the podium, Scherer told her that she and her staff will always remember her as “a hero.”
Joaquin’s mother Patricia Padauy Oliver directed her statement to Cruz’s defense and she criticized Chief Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill and her closing argument. She said the defense team engaged in “shameful, despicable behavior.” She also said Public Defender Gordon Weekes shouldn’t have said that the process was meant to be cathartic.
“The legal system should protect and impart justice,” Padauy Oliver said, and she had a question for the defense: “If this, the worst mass shooting to go to trial, does not deserve the death penalty, what does?”
Padauy Oliver also had a short statement for Cruz: “You are a natural evil killer. I thought that the devil did not exist until death put us in front of this path.”
Meghan Petty, the older sister of 14-year-old victim Alaina Petty, said she felt betrayed by the justice system and described Cruz as “a remorseless monster who deserves no mercy” and who has “incredible darkness” and said that she worried that every single “sick, twisted little freak” around the country will now know that the mental health defense will spare them.
Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old victim Alexander Schachter, referred to Cruz as “the creature,” “that animal” and “menace.” He said Florida law had failed the victims’ families. He also accused McNeill of lying during her closing argument since Cruz had received “hundreds of hours” of therapy.
“You can’t fix evil,” Schachter said.
The grieving father said Cruz got enjoyment out of watching others suffering and was a “sociopath” who did not “deserve to live among us” Schachter later added that Tuesday was his birthday, a day when he was always going to wish that Cruz “suffer a painful violent death.”
Anne Ramsay, the grieving mother of 17-year-old Helena Ramsay, turned to Cruz and said, “You are pure evil.”
She also said her daughter Helena, who had an interest in social justice, had a grateful heart and had been frustrated after achieving perfect scores in mathematics for two years without being included in the gifted program.
“I could see that she was immersed in a school system that did not want to promote well-behaved, hardworking, conscientious, Black, brown or biracial children, and Helena she gained her rightful spot in the gifted class,” Anne Ramsay said.
Anne Ramsay said she and Helena visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and Helena had been looking forward to going back because there was so much to see.
“We still need positive action, so you took away an angel that day who could have made a difference in society,” Helena’s mother said.
Tony Montalto said the jurors made an “emotional” decision when “they found a way to excuse the murders” of his 14-year-old daughter Gina Rose Montalto and the other victims.
Gina’s brother, Anthony, rushed to the courthouse after school to deliver his statement next to his dad. He said he felt a “large pain” in his chest as if it was a sign that something was wrong with Gina.
“That morning I did not say goodbye to her,” Anthony said adding it plagues him with regret. He also said, “the jury has failed the families, the victims, and me.”
Theresa Robinovitz, the grandmother of 14-year-old victim Alyssa Alhadeff, told Cruz he was the clerk who charged her for Valentine’s Day cards at the Dollar Store, and he was the neighbor who had pointed a rifle at her townhouse.
“I hope your ever-breathing moment here on earth is miserable and you repent for your sins ... and burn in hell,” Robinovitz said.
Alyssa’s grandfather David Robinovitz also directed his statement to Cruz, and said, “Parkland murderer, I hope your maker sends you directly to hell to burn for the rest of your eternity.”
Bree and Eric Wikander, the parents of survivor Ben Wikander, said he was shot three times in his arm, his abdomen, and his back when he was 17 years old. He suffered radial nerve damage in his right arm and underwent seven surgeries. He also has shrapnel that is lodged in his back.
“We hope that you the monster who did this to our son endure a painful existence in your remainder days,” Eric Wikander told Cruz. “Whatever pain you experience in prison, unfortunately, will be a fraction of what Ben endured.”
After the victims’ families speak again on Wednesday afternoon, as Florida law stands, Scherer will have to sentence Cruz to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office will have to turn him over to the Florida Department of Corrections.
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“So this is their opportunity to finally get whatever closure they're going to find, by speaking to the judge, and speaking directly to the defendant, because he will be present he is required to be present during these two days of victim statements.” -@DavidSWeinstein #Parkland pic.twitter.com/osIQzNRiq1— Christina Boomer Vazquez, M.S. (@CBoomerVazquez) November 1, 2022