• U.S.
  • Courts

The Parkland Death Penalty Trial Was the First of its Kind for a Mass Shooter. It Won’t Be the Last

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Ivy Schamis was never expecting to get closure from the trial of the gunman who killed 17 of her students and colleagues at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. “But,” she says, “it’s sort of a finality.”

Schamis had been teaching a class on the Holocaust at the high school on Feb. 14, 2018, when gunshots rang out in her classroom and killed two of her students, Helena Ramsay and Nicholas Dworet, both 17. Over the last three months, she watched the death-penalty trial of the gunman every day, searching for answers about why he visited such horror on her community.

“What happened in this person’s life?” she told TIME before the jury reached a verdict. “What drives someone to just go and slaughter innocent, amazing people?”

On Thursday, the 12-person jury failed to unanimously agree on the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, 24. The verdict, rendered after one day of deliberation, means that Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Cruz pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of first-degree murder for the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The decision follows a nearly three-month-long trial during which prosecutors highlighted devastating details of the shooting and the gunman’s “unspeakable, horrific brutality,” while defense attorneys focused on his mental health issues and his mother’s abuse of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy.

Jurors failed to unanimously agree that the aggravating factors in the case, including Cruz’s pre-planning of the shooting, outweighed these mitigating factors.

The trial was the first of its kind for a mass shooter in the U.S., and marked the deadliest mass shooting to go before a jury. Of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, eight of the gunmen—including those at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012—died by suicide or were killed by police.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by Dylann Roof, who was convicted of killing nine Black church members in Charleston, S.C., and was sentenced to death by a federal jury in 2017 after representing himself and refusing to present evidence.

More trials over mass shootings are set to follow. The man accused of killing 23 people in 2019 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, has pleaded not guilty and is still awaiting trial. State prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty in the case, but the trial has been delayed while a Texas judge waits to see whether federal prosecutors will also seek capital punishment over the gunman’s federal charges, including hate crimes.

The man accused of killing 10 Black people in a racist shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has not yet said whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

“I have no doubt that the prosecutors and the defense lawyers in those cases are watching this case very carefully,” says Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., noting that it’s not yet clear what resonated with jurors during the trial.

He had thought the odds in this trial favored the defense. “The prosecution has to win every juror on every count, whereas the defense only has to find that one juror who has any doubts,” Jarvis says.

It will never be true justice’

Some family members in the courtroom shook their heads or covered their eyes as the jury’s decision was read. “We are beyond disappointed with the outcome today,” Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shooting, said in a press conference after the verdict. “What is the death penalty for if not for the murder and killing of 17 people?”

But many Parkland survivors want the outcome of this trial to be about more than the gunman’s sentence.

Some spoke out directly against the death penalty. “Killing the MSD shooter will not bring anyone back to life,” Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas student who survived the shooting, said in a tweet in July. “It will not stop the next school shooter. It will bring our community neither justice nor peace.”

Diane Wolk-Rogers, who was teaching at Stoneman Douglas during the shooting, wants the trial to be a wake-up call about the need for stronger gun regulations and increased mental health resources. “For me, justice means that we pick up the momentum and we adopt more robust gun regulation and invest in mental health resources,” she says. “That, to me, is justice.”

“One without the other is not going to solve the problem,” she says.

Sarah Lerner, an English teacher at Stoneman Douglas who launched Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence with two other educators, is just eager for the trial to be over.

“It wouldn’t be justice, but at least closure would be knowing that the trial is over and that the building can come down because it’s a constant reminder of what happened, what we lost, who we lost,” says Lerner, who can see the building where the shooting took place from her classroom. “The building needs to come down, so that would give me more closure than whichever way the verdict is going to go.”

Schamis supported the death penalty in this case. She no longer teaches at Stoneman Douglas; she waited until all the students from her 2018 Holocaust class had graduated and then she left the school where she had taught for 20 years. It had become too hard driving back to the school every day, seeing the building where the shooting took place.

She still has a group chat with the students who were in her class that day. It was initially used to coordinate rides to funeral services in the days after the shooting. Now, some chime in when they’re struggling, and others offer support. Some students watched Schamis testify during the trial in July and told her she was brave.

“It will never be true justice” for the parents who lost children in the shooting, she says. Beyond Cruz’s sentence, Schamis would like to see broader change that could prevent this kind of shooting and this kind of trial from ever happening again—ending access to assault rifles, for example.

“It’s not just what happens to him,” she says. “I just hope the community heals.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com