ORLANDO, Fla. – Inside a courtroom in Broward County Thursday, a jury recommended Nikolas Cruz receive life in prison instead of the death penalty for killing 17 people at a Parkland high school in 2018.
It’s a decision that cascaded from the courtroom to those impacted in Central Florida.
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Each decision for each victim was read one-by-one out loud, as their families reacted to the outcome they had waited for. Thursday’s hearing was the culmination of a three-month trial to determine if Cruz should receive the death penalty, which would only be granted if a unanimous vote was reached on any of the 17 counts.
“Why that decision? Why? When the kids he killed are dead and he gets to live,” Isabella Benjumea said.
Benjumea is now a sophomore at the University of Central Florida. But on Feb. 14 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the then 14-year-old hid underneath her desk, afraid for her life.
“I was in the first room that’s right next to the door he came in,” she said. “I texted my mom and told her there was somebody with a gun at school, and that we were hiding.”
Her friend, Alyssa Alhadeff, is among the victims.
“She was my first friend in high school, and she died before she could even turn 15,” Benjumea said.
Benjumea said her trauma has followed her as she moved away from Parkland to begin her studies at UCF.
“I was scared of walking alone on campus at night,” she said. “I had these triggers.”
She called the jury’s decision to spare Cruz from the death penalty disappointing.
“It was something really planned out, and like, he killed 17 people and he injured more,” Benjumea said. “And, on top of that, he put thousands of students in danger.”
Robert Schentrup was a freshman at UCF at the time of the shooting. He remembers getting a call while in his dorm, learning he lost his sister. But unlike Benjumea, he is against the death penalty for her killer.
“Murdering someone will not make something right,” Schentrup said.
Schentrup spoke with News 6 minutes after Thursday’s hearing ended. He said the jury’s decision to spare Cruz’s life brings him relief.
“I remember after the Sandy Hook tragedy hearing, you know, about how the victims’ families had forgiven,” Schentrup said.
He added consequences for Cruz brought about by the criminal justice system have played a small role in his grief process.
“For me, it is not a huge part,” Schentrup said. “A lot of it has really (comes) from my work in advocacy and being able to work to change this country’s gun laws.”
Schentrup said he hopes for healing and a chance to move forward.
“I know that for a lot of other folks, they were really expecting a different decision, and I know it’s going to be really hard for them,” Schentrup said. “Really, they’re the ones who are on the top of my mind because I care for them.”
It’s expected that family members will get to share their thoughts on the record at next month’s sentencing hearing set for Nov. 1.
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