Nikolas Cruz has avoided the death penalty. Here’s what’s next for him now



CNN

Here’s what we know: Nikolas Cruz, the now 24-year-old who admitted to killing 17 people at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, has avoided the death penalty.

A jury on Thursday recommended he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a decision that enraged many of the victims’ families, who said allowing Cruz to live is not justice served.

“Life in prison is NOT punishment! That’s exactly what he wanted,” Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old Alex Schachter, who was murdered in the massacre, wrote on Twitter. He said the decision means Cruz will likely be protected while in custody, able to “read, draw, receive phone calls and mail” while “his 17 victims suffered in fear” before he killed them.

These are the Parkland school shooting victims

There’s still a lot we don’t know about what the rest of Cruz’s life in prison will look like, most of which will likely be sorted out when he’s formally sentenced early next month.

But here’s what could come next:

Tony Montalto parkland dad

‘This ruling is another gut punch’: Father of Parkland victim speaks out on Cruz jury recommendation

The jury’s recommendation Thursday is just that: a recommendation and not an official verdict. Since Thursday, jurors have taken the stand about what they described as intense deliberations, and one juror reported feeling threatened; an allegation that the local sheriff’s office is now investigating.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is expected to formally sentence Cruz on Nov. 1 at 1 p.m. 9, but under Florida law the judge cannot deviate from the jury’s recommendation of life in prison.

Victims and family members are expected to speak before sentencing.

But as for the verdict itself, the jury’s recommendation is final, Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes said at a Thursday news conference, adding in the state, “victims have a constitutional right to be heard at every step of the proceedings.”

“The court will respect that right and give them an opportunity to be heard. And we appreciate that and we recognize that and that should be followed,” Weekes said. “But we have to also recognize that the jurors in the case sat through a number of days of very, very difficult, traumatic evidence, and they heard it all, and they weighed it all, and they made a verdict. We have to respect that.”

Cruz also has the right to speak at the sentencing if he chooses, according to Janet Johnson, a criminal defense attorney in Florida.

Cruz, who has been in the Broward County Jail since 2018, was also sentenced to 25 years in state prison after pleading guilty to assaulting a prison officer in November of that year.

He will likely remain in custody for a few weeks after his sentencing before being placed in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections and transported to one of several reception centers in the state.

On Thursday, Weekes said Cruz will likely be taken to the South Florida Reception Center.

He will spend several weeks at the reception center “getting physicals, mental health exams,” Johnson said. “They’ll look at his record, they’ll look at the level of crime that he’s been convicted of, which is obviously the highest, and they’ll recommend a facility somewhere in the state.”

The chosen facility is determined by “reviewing the seriousness of (the inmate’s) offenses, length of sentence, time remaining to serve, prior criminal record, escape history, prison adjustment and other factors,” according to the Florida Department of Corrections website.

“The most serious offenders with the longest sentences and those least likely to adjust to institutional life are placed in more secure facilities,” the Department of Corrections website noted. Based on these evaluations, the person is then transferred to the facility deemed most appropriate.

Because Cruz is a high-risk felon, he will likely be housed in a prison with other high-profile or “very dangerous criminals,” Johnson said.

“But he didn’t want to be isolated, which of course is a real threat to him because there may be people who want to do ‘prison justice’ who didn’t feel the sentence he got in court was enough,” Johnson added.

According to a Department of Corrections handbook, there are several custody classifications of inmates, among them close custody for inmates who “must be kept within an armed perimeter or under direct, armed supervision when outside a secure perimeter.”

The Department of Corrections did not respond to CNN’s questions about what kind of custody Cruz may be placed under.

Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill also hinted at the dangers Cruz will face in prison during her closing arguments in the death penalty case, saying he will “wait to die” in a facility, “either of natural causes or whatever could happen to him while he is in prison.”

And at a news conference after the jury’s recommendation, Linda Beigel Schulman, mother of geography teacher Scott Beigel, who was killed at the high school, said Cruz will have to “look over his shoulder (in prison) every minute of the rest of his life.”

“I hope he has that fear in him, every second of his life, just like he gave that fear to each and every one of our loved ones that he murdered,” she said. “He should live in that fear and he should be scared every second of the day of his life.”

Parents of Parkland victims, including Schachter, have pointed to parts of life that Cruz will still get to experience while their children were stolen away in prison.

That includes receiving mail and seeing visitors, which he likely will have the right to do, Johnson said. He could also have a tablet through which he will be able to email and text others, Johnson added.

The Department of Corrections website pointed out that inmates and their families are allowed to communicate through “interactive, stationary kiosks available in housing units for the general population, as well as tablets.” These services are available in all major correctional facilities in Florida, according to the website.

“And you can see the argument (by the victims’) families saying, ‘We can’t do that,'” Johnson added. “And that’s understandable.”

The Department of Corrections also did not respond to CNN’s questions about what kind of mental health treatment Cruz may receive while in prison.

During the trial, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office released more than 30 pages of writings and drawings by Cruz that revealed disturbing thoughts he had had while in custody, focusing on guns, blood and death. On one page, Cruz wrote: “All I want is to go to death row. I don’t want life. Please help me to go to death row.” On another, he addressed his family and told them he is sad and hopes to die of a heart attack by taking painkillers and through extreme eating.

While in prison, Cruz also drew pictures of bullets, guns and people being shot. He wrote that he “never wanted to be alive” and he hopes he dies and never wakes up and that “my life is painful, always always has been”.

His defense team argued that Cruz is a “brain-damaged, mentally ill” person who, among other conditions, suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder stemming from his mother’s drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy, McNeill said during closing arguments.

And Cruz appeared to be in control of his behavior in the courtroom, McNeill said, because “he’s on medication and he’s on psychiatric treatment. He’s being treated by the prison psychologist.”

Cruz will receive a psychiatric evaluation when he arrives at the reception center, Johnson said, which will help determine his diagnosis and what medication he may need.

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