Parkland shooting verdict: Juror says she was threatened by 'fellow juror' during deliberations

'The way it comes out is that his life has more value than those that were murdered,' said Chris Hixon's widow, Debra.

BySara Weisfeldt, Matthew Hilk, Elizabeth Wolfe, Dakin Andone and Alta Spells, CNN
Friday, October 14, 2022
Parkland school shooter to get life sentence for killing 17
Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz will be sentenced to life without parole for the 2018 massacre of 17 people at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

FLORIDA -- Prosecutors in the Nikolas Cruz Parkland shooting case are calling for law enforcement to interview a juror who said they felt threatened by another juror during deliberations, according to a court filing obtained by CNN.

The state's motion asks Judge Elizabeth Scherer to compel law enforcement officers to interview the juror. It does not identify the juror and does not indicate which sentence the juror supported.

"Juror X spoke to a support staff member and informed the support staff member that during deliberations she received what she perceived to be a threat from a fellow juror while in the jury room," the filing says. "The State did not call Juror X back and instead, filed a Notice to the Court."

It is not clear whether Scherer will comply with that prosecution request.

The motion is the latest indication of behind-the-scenes tension among the jury. Thursday, a juror wrote a letter to the judge calling the deliberations "tense" and denying an accusation she heard that she had made up her mind to support a life sentence before the trial began. And in an interview the jury foreman described disagreement among the jury, saying only three jurors opposed the death penalty in this case.

It is not clear whether the juror who reported the perceived threat is the same juror who wrote the letter to the judge.

SEE ALSO | Jurors begin death penalty deliberations for Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz

As the panel's decision to recommend a lifelong prison sentence without the possibility of parole was read aloud in court Thursday, jurors stared straight ahead or gazed into their laps.

The group of jurors didn't look in the direction of visibly emotional victims' families, many of whom hoped the shooter would receive the death penalty after he pleaded guilty to massacring 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida 2018.

The jury's decision punctuates a monthslong trial to determine whether Cruz, 24, would be sentenced to life in prison or be handed the death penalty, which would have required a unanimous decision from the jury. The judge is expected to issue the gunman's formal sentence on November 1 and by law is unable to deviate from the jury's recommendation of life.

The deliberations became "tense" as jurors worked toward a conclusion, the jury member wrote in the handwritten letter to Scherer. The juror, who ultimately voted against the death penalty, wrote that "some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned that I would vote for life (in prison)."

Ultimately, three of the 12 jurors voted against recommending the death sentence, jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR.

"There was one with a hard 'no,' she couldn't do it. And there was another two that ended up voting the same way," said Thomas. He explained that the woman who was a hard no "didn't believe because he was mentally ill he should get the death penalty."

Several family members of Cruz's victims decried the jury's decision as a cruel denial of the devastation that they have been forced to live with.

When making their decision, jurors weighed the aggravating factors presented by prosecutors against mitigating circumstances laid out by Cruz's defense team, who argued that aspects of his birth and upbringing warranted a lesser punishment. Cruz's attorneys painted the shooter as a severely "broken" person who suffers from a number of mental and developmental issues that were not adequately treated when he was growing up.

Prosecutors in turn argued that any mitigating factors were overshadowed by what they described as Cruz's exceptionally cruel and heinous acts. They presented detailed evidence to support their claims that Cruz carefully planned and premeditated the attack. The prosecution rested their case after jurors were taken to tour the still blood-stained school building where the massacre occurred.

'Yet another gut punch' for devastated families

Victims' loved ones were overwhelmed with rage and disbelief after hearing the verdict and many denounced the decision as inadequate punishment given the extraordinary losses they have suffered.

The 14 slain students were: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 14.

Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, were also killed -- each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.

READ MORE | Representatives, activists push for gun control on NIU, Parkland school shooting anniversaries

Hixon's widow, Debra Hixon, told CNN Thursday that when she realized the killer wouldn't receive the death penalty, she felt like she had been punched in the chest.

"What hurts the most is that there is a belief that any mitigating circumstances could outweigh what he did to our loved ones," Hixon said, adding, "Because the way it comes out is that his life has more value than those that were murdered."

Public defender Gordon Weekes urged the community to respect the jury's decision.

"This day is not a day of celebration, but a day of solemn acknowledgment, and a solemn opportunity to reflect on the healing that is necessary for this community," he told reporters.

But several families were insistent that the jury's decision does not deliver them peace. Alyssa's parents said they were "disgusted" by the verdict.

"I'm disgusted with the system, that you can allow 17 dead and 17 others shot and wounded, and not get the death penalty," Ilan Alhadeff said. "What do we have the death penalty for?"

The mother of Helena Ramsay, a 17-year-old senior, also denounced the jury's recommendation.

"After spending months and months listening, and hearing testimonies, and looking at the murderer -- his composure -- I believe justice was not done," Anne Ramsay said. "The wrong verdict was given out today."

Many loved ones also continued their plea for gun policy reform to prevent the growing reality of gun violence in American schools, including Gina Montalto's father.

RELATED | Jimmy Kimmel delivers emotional plea for gun-safety laws: 'How does this make sense to anyone?'

"While this sentence fails to punish the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law -- it will not stop our mission to effect positive change at a federal, state and local level to prevent school shooting tragedies from shattering other American families," Tony Montalto said.

Like Montalto, Hixon is determined not to let the jury's decision overshadow her loved one's memory, telling CNN that she has final words for the shooter who killed her husband.

"I just want him to know that I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of watching me suffer," she said. "I'm going to pick myself up. We're going to honor Chris every day in positive ways. And we're going to shut the door on this and we're never going to think about (the killer) again."

The video in the player above is from a previous report.

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