The most vicious killer in South Florida history will spend the rest of his life in prison for the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
“You will not come out until you are no longer alive,” Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer told Nikolas Cruz Wednesday before accepting his guilty pleas at a hearing in Fort Lauderdale.
The only remaining question is whether Florida will put him to death by lethal injection or commit him to live out his life in prisons where child killers, regarded as the lowest of the low, are well-advised to keep their backs to the walls.
The punishment will be for 12 jurors to decide next year, following the 34 guilty pleas Cruz entered — 17 for first-degree murder and 17 more for the attempted first-degree murder of victims who were shot but survived.
The legitimate ends of justice are already met. Society is safer with him locked away forever.
As we have said and still believe, there are good reasons why the life-sentence alternative is the better one in this case despite the savagery of Cruz’s horrific murder spree with a legally purchased assault weapon:
•It will be very challenging to find 12 jurors who haven’t already made up their minds about his punishment, but failure to move the penalty-phase trial to someplace less saturated by publicity would constitute grounds for an appeal.
•Survivors, some still in their teens, would be spared the necessary but traumatic ordeal of testifying to the excruciating pain and horror they have endured and which will be with them always.
•Even with the question of guilt resolved, it often takes years of appeals and decades of delays before a death sentence is carried out. Danny Rolling spent 16 years on death row after pleading guilty to butchering five college students in Gainesville in 1990. Ten men have been on Florida’s death row since the 1970s and two from Broward have been there since 1982.
•To limit the horrific anguish, Broward needs to close this hideous chapter sooner rather than later. But it will linger if there are death sentences that are appealed.
•The three-story building where the murders occurred should be torn down now, not next year or later, since it is no longer essential to a jury walk-through. The Legislature appropriated $25 million to replace it. The surviving victims — everyone who was on campus that day — deserve to be spared the sight. Although the last of the students will graduate this year, every teacher and administrator was a victim and three of their colleagues died.
A surprise element in Cruz’s guilty pleas was that the defense conceded them without getting anything from the state in return. Mike Satz, the retired state attorney who remains in charge of the case, steadfastly refused defense offers to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences. He appears determined, perhaps obsessively so, to make a death sentence for Cruz the capstone of his 44-year career.
Satz outlined the prosecution’s case in court Wednesday and family members wept as he methodically described each killing and the precise number of bullets that struck each victim. “She died of her wounds,” Satz said. “He died of his wounds.”
The defense strategy to plead guilty without a deal serves as an appeal to the jury as well as to the victims’ families. Some would accept a life sentence, but others want him executed.
In remarks to the court in a soft but clear voice, the killer explicitly addressed the families.
“I just want you to know I’m really sorry,” he said, “and I hope you give me a chance to try to help others. I believe it’s your decision to decide where I go, whether I live or die, not the jury’s. I believe it’s your decision. I’m sorry.”
By law, it’s not the families’ decision, it’s the jury’s — with input from the families and others.
Cruz has foregone many opportunities for errors that even a highly experienced judge might make in a case of such notoriety and public interest. That leaves fewer avenues for appeals.
As Satz and some victims’ families see it, if the Parkland murders don’t warrant the death penalty, what would?
It’s a reasonable question, but it begs others. One is the overbroad reach of Florida’s death penalty, which covers even unpremeditated murders where guilt is in doubt. Another is the potentially appealable issue of mental illness in this case.
The commission appointed to investigate the tragedy acknowledged that, finding that Cruz “was a troubled child and young adult who displayed aggressive and violent tendencies as early as three years old ... There are reports of behavioral issues at all of the schools he attended. He was under the care of community and private mental health professionals from age 11 until he turned 18 and refused further services.”
There were explicit warnings. Two students told an assistant principal the year before the tragedy that Cruz might hurt others and even shoot up the school.
After the massacre, the FBI acknowledged that it received two separate tips on Cruz. One reported a social media post in which Cruz himself said he would be a school shooter. The other was from “a person close to (him)” reporting on his “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential for him conducting a school shooting.” The FBI admitted the information should have been forwarded to the Miami field office and was not.
The many missed opportunities do not excuse what he did, but they cast doubt on whether the vengeance of the death penalty is an appropriate remedy.
In New York, Massachusetts, Virginia and 20 other states, this case would be over. That includes Colorado, whose death penalty was still in force when James Holmes was tried for killing 12 people and wounding 70 at a theater in Aurora in 2012. The jurors rejected his insanity defense, but three of them chose life. He is now serving a 3,000-year sentence.
Thirty-four consecutive life sentences for Cruz would serve Florida just as well.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at firstname.lastname@example.org.