FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s two-day sentencing hearing began Tuesday with the families of the 17 people he murdered getting their first chance to speak to him directly, using emotional and often angry terms to describe the devastation he brought to their lives.
Debra Hixon — the wife of athletic director Chris Hixon, a Navy veteran who died trying to stop the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — was the first to address Cruz. The killer wore a bright red jail jumpsuit and showed no emotion from behind a face mask.
“You stole him from us, and you did not receive the justice that you deserved,” Debra Hixon said. “There is no mitigating circumstance that will outweigh the heinous and cruel way you stole him from us.”
Chris Hixon was wounded and fell to the floor, where Cruz shot him again. He spent more than 10 minutes trying to get back on his feet before he died.
“You were given a gift, a gift of grace and mercy — something you did not show to any of your victims,” Debra Hixon told Cruz. “I wish nothing for you today. 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.”
Family members and a teacher told Cruz they were disappointed in the jury’s sentencing recommendation, which will send him to prison for life, instead of putting him to death.
“We hope that you, the monster who did this to our son, endure a painful existence in your remaining days. Whatever pain you experience in prison unfortunately will be a fraction of what Ben endured,” said Eric Wikander, the father of student Ben Wikander, who has undergone seven surgeries.
Stacey Lippel, a wounded teacher, told Cruz she was “broken and altered.”
“Because of you, I check for all exits wherever I am,” Lippel said. “Because of you, I think of the worst-case scenario for myself and my family. Because of you, I will never feel safe again,” Lippel said. “I have no forgiveness in my heart for you. You are a monster with no remorse, and every breath you take is a breath wasted.”
After the families of the dead and the 17 people Cruz wounded finish speaking, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will formally sentence him Wednesday to life in prison without parole. She has no other option, as the jury in his recently concluded penalty trial could not unanimously agree that the 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student deserved a death sentence.
The families gave emotional statements during the trial but were restricted about what they could tell jurors. They could describe only their loved ones and the toll the killings had on their lives. The wounded could say only what happened to them.
They were barred from addressing Cruz directly or saying anything about him — a violation would have risked a mistrial. And the jurors were told they couldn’t consider the family statements as aggravating factors as they weighed whether Cruz should die.
One family member who chose not to speak directly to Cruz is Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was shot in the back as she tried to flee.
He tweeted Tuesday that it won’t change anything if he addresses “the monster” who murdered his daughter, the defense team he believes “gave up its humanity” to defend him or the teacher he says faked heroism.
Cruz’s attorneys say he is not expected to speak. He apologized in court last year after pleading guilty to the murders and attempted murders, but families told reporters they found the apology aimed at garnering sympathy.
That plea set the stage for a three-month penalty trial that ended Oct. 13 with the jury voting 9-3 for a death sentence. Jurors said those voting for life believed Cruz is mentally ill and should be spared. Under Florida law, a death sentence requires unanimity.
Prosecutors argued Cruz planned the shooting for seven months before he slipped into a three-story classroom building, firing 140 shots with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle down hallways and into classrooms. He fatally shot some wounded victims after they fell. Cruz said he chose Valentine’s Day so it could never again be celebrated at Stoneman Douglas.
Cruz’s attorneys focused on their belief that his birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy left him brain damaged and condemned to a life of erratic and sometimes violent behavior that culminated in the massacre — the deadliest U.S. mass shooting to go to trial.