By Sam Cabral & Alexandra Ostasiewicz
The court was packed, but you could have heard a pin drop as victims waited for a verdict in the sentencing trial of the Parkland school gunman.
It was the culmination of nearly five years of trauma, as jurors decided whether the gunman should spend the rest of his life in prison or be put to death.
The panel of seven men and five women voted 17 times in all, once for each murdered victim. Each time, they spared Nikolas Cruz, 24, from death row.
For victims’ families, who had hoped the decision would resemble some form of reconciliation after the brutal attack, the decision has left them aghast.
“I’m disgusted with our legal system. I’m disgusted with those jurors,” said Ilan Marc Alhadeff.
His daughter Alyssa, 14, died in the attack along with 13 other children and three educators. A first-year student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she had dreamed of one day playing on the US women’s national football team.
“You set a precedent for the next mass killing – that nothing happens and you’ll get life in jail,” Mr Alhadeff added.
In the US, mass shootings are all too common, but the Parkland shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018 was unique.
The debate over gun control in this country is often reignited by such attacks, but due to partisan animosity, it usually dies down after a week or so. Here, that was not the case.
For weeks, if not months, the issue was front and center thanks to a new youth movement that demanded stricter gun laws and was led by students at the school. In several major cities, tens of thousands of Americans participated in demonstrations calling for an end to gun violence.
Since then, state and federal legislators have passed modest reforms but have refrained from making more expansive recommendations.
Of course, the suffering has been particularly severe for the families of those who perished that day.
Since the trial’s start more than three months ago, many of them have attended court daily to recount the attack in vivid detail, frequently using audio and video.
When the first piece of evidence was played in court on the first day of the trial, in July, some people sobbed while others fled the room. In audio footage, a woman can be heard yelling “shut it off” as loud gunfire is audible.
On Thursday, the mood in court was just as charged with emotion, if not more so.
Families shook their heads in shock as Judge Elizabeth Scherer read out the jury’s verdict, count by count, as they sat in the front rows designated for them.
On each count, jurors acknowledged the crime that had been committed as well as how its brutal and premeditated nature warranted a death sentence for the gunman. But the defence team argued “mitigating circumstances” – including lifelong abuse and mental health disorders – outweighed the crime itself. The jury agreed.
Tom and Gena Hoyer lost their son, Luke, in the massacre and were present to hear his killer’s fate.
“It’s been a bad day. I’m as stunned as I was the day Luke was killed,” Mr Hoyer told the BBC.
“I’m heartbroken, I’m stunned. I can’t believe they gave a cold-blooded killer more mercy than the 17 victims he killed,” Mrs Hoyer said.
When the judge read the verdict aloud, many observers were confused about what the result was because of the complex legal language. But the Hoyers knew exactly what she was saying. Prosecutors had explained to them what to listen for.
“I was waiting on that one question to hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And I couldn’t believe it,” Mrs Hoyer said.
Their son Luke was the very first name read in court. When they heard no to the death penalty, they held out hope that another, more extreme death might still earn a capital sentence – meaning the gunman would still be executed.
Mr Hoyer waited and hoped until almost the end of the charges, when they read the name of Peter Wang, who was shot four times in the head. The gunman had said he watched his head explode like a water balloon.
The verdict remained life in prison.
“Our justice system should have been used to punish this shooter to the fullest extent of the law,” said Tony Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Gina in the shooting.
“Not as an act of revenge, but to protect our nation’s schools and to stop others from attacking the future of this country.”
As the judge spoke, Mr Montalto – who now heads a non-profit advocating for school safety reforms – shook his head vigorously in the fifth row and wrapped his arm around his wife Jennifer.
Corey Hixon got up and left the room when he heard the killer would receive a life sentence, not the death penalty, for his father Christopher’s murder.
The elder Hixon – the athletics director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a former US Navy reservist who once deployed to Iraq – died after running towards the gunfire in an effort to shield students.
Mr Hixon’s widow Debra said: “What this verdict says to me is that [the gunman’s] life meant more than the 17 that were murdered, the 17 [others] that were shot, and the thousands of people in that school and community that are traumatised every single day.”
The trial at the Broward County Courthouse – some 30 miles south-east of the scene of the shooting – was an extremely rare legal proceeding.
The gunman had already pleaded guilty on 34 criminal counts – 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder – last October, so jurors were only deciding his sentence.
The last time a mass gunman faced a trial of this kind was in 2017, when the white supremacist who fatally shot nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, was sentenced to death.
But this was the deadliest shooting ever to go to trial. That’s because most attackers are either killed by law enforcement in the course of their rampage or take their own lives in its immediate aftermath.
Another individual who killed 23 people at a Walmart department store in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, could face a similar trial next year.
The Parkland trial was delayed and slowed on several occasions, including by the Covid-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ian a fortnight ago.
Jury selection began in April and it took nearly three months to winnow down 1,800 people to a panel of 12, with 10 alternates. In turn, those 22 jurors heard more than three months of testimony.
Sequestered and without access to mobile phones or television, the jury deliberated for roughly seven hours before recommending a life sentence, without the possibility of parole.
A formal sentencing will take place on 1 November, but many left Thursday’s proceedings feeling deflated.
Fred Guttenberg told the BBC last year he “won’t ever stop” fighting to honour his daughter Jaime’s memory.
The 14-year-old’s death has transformed Mr Guttenberg’s life and he is now one of the most well-known advocates for gun control in the country.
“I was prepared for the rest of my life to seek justice,” he said after the verdict. “And I could not be more disappointed in what happened today.”
- American dies while fighting in Ukraine
- War-torn Ukraine needs at least $3 billion a month in 2023, says IMF
- Slovakia: Two dead after shooting outside LGBT bar