Parkland parents respond to jury’s recommended sentence of life in prison for gunman

A Florida jury recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole for the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018. The decision spares Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty. Cruz admitted to the shooting but state law required unanimous agreement to impose a death sentence. Attorney David Weinstein joined John Yang to discuss the verdict.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported, a Florida jury has recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty, for the gunman behind the Parkland school shooting; 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School back in 2018.

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, the seven men and five women on the jury unanimously agreed that the massacre was premeditated and, in the words of the law, especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

    But the jury foreman told a Miami TV station that three jurors said that those aggravating factors did not outweigh the mitigating factors. In the courtrooms, some of the families of those killed shook their heads and apparent disbelief.

    Afterward, the father of 14-year-old Gina Montalto expressed his anguish.

    Tony Montalto, Father of Parkland Shooting Victim: My beautiful Gina, the other sons, daughters, spouses and fathers, they were the victims here. Our justice system should have been used to punish this shooter to the fullest extent of the law, not as an act of revenge, but to protect our nation's schools.

    To help us understand the verdict, David Weinstein, who's a Florida defense attorney and a former state and federal prosecutor in Florida.

    Mr. Weinstein, thanks for joining us.

    Were you surprised by this verdict?

  • David Weinstein, Former Prosecutor, Miami-Dade County, Florida:

    John, I was shocked, especially given how quickly — I understand it was within a day of deliberations — that they came back. To me, that usually signifies that it's going to be a verdict in favor of the state.

    I was as shocked as anyone that they came back with a life recommendation.

  • John Yang:

    The three jurors who said that the aggravating factors did not outweigh the mitigating factors, the major mitigating factor the defense presented was that the shooter had what's called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder because of his mother's heavy drinking while she was pregnant with him.

    Here's public defender Melisa McNeill in her closing statement.

  • Melisa McNeill, Public Defender:

    He did not have control over who his biological mother is. He had no control over how he was conceived. He had no control over how much Colt 45 that Brenda drank when he was growing in her belly.

  • John Yang:

    David Weinstein, what's your reaction or your take on that argument?

  • David Weinstein:

    Well, it resonated enough with at least one and as many as three of these jurors, and it gave them enough for them to say, we believe that mitigating factor, the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, outweighed all of those aggravating factors that were presented by the state and, in their mind, justified their decision to vote for life imprisonment, instead of the death penalty.

    She asked them to take that into consideration, that he had no chance from the beginning. And for those people, that's what resonated with them.

  • John Yang:

    How much of a challenge did that president to the prosecution team in getting a unanimous verdict for the death penalty?

  • David Weinstein:

    I think it was a task that they saw was going to be difficult. And they put forward a significant number of aggravating factors that they proved to this jury, and that the jury agreed to.

    But the way the statute is written and the way the law requires, it has to be unanimous. So, for them, they had to convince all 12 of those people that that mitigation was not going to be enough to outweigh all these aggravating factors. And they were unsuccessful in doing that.

    And, to some sense, the defense knew during the presentation of their case that they had hit a core with one or more of those jurors, because they stopped short in the number of witnesses that they were going to present.

  • John Yang:

    Explain to us, David, why the sentence was not imposed today. Sentencing was put off until November 1. And how much latitude does the judge have when she imposes that sentence?

  • David Weinstein:

    Let me answer your second question first. She has no latitude.

    Because this jury has recommended a life sentence, that is the sentence she must impose. And that is why she was going to impose it this morning. There are two different portions of law in Florida, a Victims' Rights Act that's in part of our state Constitution and a statutory provision that requires that the judge hear at sentencing from victims and next of kin before the judge imposes sentence.

    And so that's why she couldn't impose sense today. And that's why November 1 will be the day that she hears from the 17 victims who survived, the next of kin of the 17 victims who died. And they will tell her what they think the sentence should be. But she has no choice. She is going to have to impose a life sentence. She can't override this jury's decision.

  • John Yang:

    We heard a lot of anger, a lot of anguish, a lot of sort of frustration from the families of people who were killed in this massacre about the outcome.

    I'm curious. As a prosecutor, how do you — I mean, you worked with these people, the jury, in the trial. What do you say to them after something like this?

  • David Weinstein:

    This is the worst situation at all possible, because these people have suffered in a way that none of us can really tell, unless we have lost a loved one.

    You have to tell them from the beginning to the end that this is a system and a process that we have all put our faith in. And to the extent that there's even a small sliver of a silver lining in this very dark cloud for them, this will end the process. There will be no appeals. They will not have to relive the death of their loved one through the appellate process and the potential that a resentencing could have occurred.

    So, in terms of there being finality, although it's not the finality they had hoped for, it is going to be a finality for them as far as the court system goes.

    There's no way to tell someone who's lost a loved one that they know how they feel. You have to simply be there for them, offer them support, and tell them that you have done and will do the job that they have asked and enabled you to do to the best of your ability, and that they have to put their trust in these 12 people and the system that we have put in place to make sure that everybody gets their fair day in court.

  • John Yang:

    One more difficult day out of so many for these families.

    David Weinstein, thank you very much.

  • David Weinstein:

    You're welcome.

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