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Parkland Shooter sentenced to life in prison without parole

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Four and a half years after a gunman murdered 17 people at a school in Parkland, Fla., a jury has given him a sentence of life in prison, not the death penalty. That sentence followed a trial in which prosecutors presented the grim details of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Jurors heard survivors testify about their terror as a former student, Nikolas Cruz, fired an AR-15-style rifle into classrooms and hallways. They viewed surveillance video showing the murders and visited the crime scene. But in the end, the 12 jurors were swayed by defense testimony that Cruz is, in the words of his lawyer, a brain-damaged, broken, mentally ill person.

NPR's Greg Allen has been covering the trial and joins us now from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Greg, I assume this came as a surprise to many people in the courtroom. You were there. How did they react?

ALLEN: People were stunned and shocked by the verdict today, for sure. One family member called it a gut punch, and many said that the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence. That's what the family members have been saying for some time. Ilan Alhadeff, the father of 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, one of those killed that day, said he was totally disgusted with the system.

ILAN ALHADEFF: That you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded and not give the death penalty - what do we have the death penalty for?

PFEIFFER: Greg, you have followed this trial over the last three months. Do you have any insight into why the jury rejected the death penalty?

ALLEN: Well, the jury deliberated for less than eight hours before coming back with the sentence. Family members and, I think, many others clearly expected a sentence of death after such a short time. The courtroom was silent as Judge Elizabeth Scherer began reading through the jury's 17 verdict forms. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH SCHERER: We, the jury, unanimously find that the aggravating factors that were proven beyond a reasonable doubt outweigh the mitigating circumstances - no.

ALHADEFF: And that means the jury found the defense arguments convincing. The defense presented testimony that Cruz was mentally impaired because of his mother's drug and alcohol abuse while she was pregnant with him. The defense said that Cruz's behavioral and mental health problems were never properly diagnosed and treated. And jurors found these so-called mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating factors. And those aggravating factors were things like that it was a mass murder, that it was planned and premeditated and that it was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

PFEIFFER: For prosecutors, this is a defeat. They wanted the death sentence. They spent four years preparing this case. How did they react?

ALLEN: Well, the current state attorney had nothing but thanks for the jury and everyone involved in the case, and he wouldn't take any questions to talk about it further. Family members praised the prosecution team, who - they say they presented a strong case for the death penalty, they feel. But many of the family members were very critical of the jury. Some believe one or more members of the jury weren't completely truthful when they told the court that they supported imposing the death penalty in certain cases, something you have to say to get on a jury like this. Linda Beigel said she was angry, but she didn't blame the jury herself. Her son, Scott, was a teacher at the school who was killed that day.

LINDA BEIGEL: We can't damn the jurors. Come on. I mean, if that's how I come across, I apologize. These jurors sat there since July 18, day in and day out.

PFEIFFER: You know, there may be some people who consider life without parole worse than the death penalty. So do you have any sense of whether people will accept that justice was done with this verdict?

ALLEN: Well, the public defender in Broward County, Gordon Weekes, today talked about the pain and trauma the community is still going through following the shooting. And he clearly is concerned about that. He asked the public to respect the verdict.

GORDON WEEKES: Respect the process that was had, and understand that those jurors have spoken. And as a community, we can now begin the process of healing.

ALLEN: I didn't hear any family members today say this helps them with healing, though. Many are angry. They say the system and the community failed them. Debbie Hixon says it'll take some time for her to process the verdict. Her husband, Christopher Hixon, was killed that day. He's the school's athletic director.

DEBBIE HIXON: It will have to be something I resolve within myself with my family because, really, right now, it feels that his life is more valuable than Christopher's. And that is not true.

ALLEN: Some of the family members of the victims have become activists and have vowed to continue that work on school safety and gun control. Some say they're worried this verdict could encourage future school shootings. And as for Cruz, he'll be formally sentenced next month, and he'll spend the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of parole.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Greg, thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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