Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table
gun violence

Parkland Shooter Trial Sparks Debate Over Death Penalty

As the high-profile sentencing trial takes place for the Parkland shooter, the centuries-long death penalty debate resurfaces in Florida and beyond.

Florida is currently undergoing one of its most notable death penalty trials in history.

A South Florida jury is tasked with deciding the fate of the man who opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others.

The confessed Parkland shooter, now 23-year-old Nikolas Cruz, will either face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

With the high-profile trial taking place in a state with a long history of capital punishment, the age-old death penalty debate has resurfaced in the state of Florida and beyond.

The History of the Death Penalty in Florida

Florida is one of 27 states that currently have the death penalty as an option for adults who commit first-degree murder, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. However, Florida’s extensive history with capital punishment dates back nearly two centuries to 1827 — the year of the state’s first known execution.

Initially, executions were carried out by the county, rather than the state. But nearly a century later, Florida placed executions under state control in 1923, according to the DPIC. That same year, the state also changed its execution method from hanging to electrocution, or the “electric chair.”

Florida's most notorious death row inmate to die on the electric chair, Ted Bundy, was executed in 1989. Throughout the 1990s, the state of Florida botched multiple electric chair executions and subsequently changed the standard method to lethal injection, except in cases where the inmate opts for electrocution.

In 2017, Florida ended “non-unanimous jury recommendations for death,” meaning the jury must now unanimously vote on death in order for the judge to impose the sentence. As a result of this statute, the jury tasked with deciding the fate of the confessed Parkland shooter must be unanimous in its decision. If even one juror does not vote for the killer to be sentenced to death, he will receive a sentence of life in prison without parole.

There are currently 307 inmates on death row in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. If the confessed Parkland killer is sentenced to death, he will become the state’s youngest person on death row.

The Death Penalty Debate

As the Parkland trial nears its end, the last two months have caused the centuries-long death penalty debate to resurface in Florida and beyond. Since its implementation, the death penalty has historically sparked controversy on both sides of the political spectrum — however, more Americans favor than oppose the death penalty, according to Pew Research Center.

Those in favor of the death penalty often argue that for certain crimes, it represents real justice. For that reason, 64% of participants surveyed by Pew believe the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder.

Some advocates argue that the existence of the death penalty can deter crime, thereby protecting society and maintaining order. While the DPIC says deterrence of crime is one of the most common arguments for the death penalty, there is no evidence linking the death penalty and murder rates.

Critics of capital punishment often focus on the inhumanity and irreversibility of a death sentence. With that permanence also comes the risk of executing an innocent person. In the last half-century, at least 190 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated, according to the DPIC. Of these 190 exonerations from death row, 30 have taken place in Florida — more than any other state.

Another argument that has been raised against the death penalty pertains to racial and economic biases. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the death penalty system in the U.S. is “applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place.”

The ACLU also says people of color are “far more likely” to be put to death than white people, especially in cases where the victim of the crime is white.

The Parkland Shooter's Trial

In light of the Parkland school shooter’s lengthy penalty trial, members of the community have spoken out about their stance on capital punishment and whether they believe the killer should be sentenced to death.

“I don’t know if there will ever be justice because Christopher’s not here,” said local school board member Debbi Hixon whose husband died trying to save his students on the day of the massacre. “So, I don’t know what justice truly looks like.”

Hixon, like many other family members of victims, has expressed her advocacy for a death penalty outcome.

“I hope for the death penalty, and not for revenge, because it's not going to bring Christopher back,” she said. “I just don't think that he has value here for us. We are going to continue to pay for his stay in jail.”

A man named Herman Lindsey has a different view. He believes the death penalty is not appropriate in any circumstance, including the case of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Though Lindsey is not connected to this particular case, he has been personally affected by Florida’s death penalty laws as one of the 30 inmates exonerated from death row in the state’s history.

Lindsey was sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of a Broward pawnshop employee before the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2009 that he never should have been convicted in the first place.

“I was still trying to discern how did this happen to me?" Lindsey said of his time in custody. "I’m fixing to die for something I didn’t do.”

Lindsey — now 48, married, and an activist against the death penalty — does not believe the confessed Parkland shooter should be put to death.

“I sympathize to all the family, but to that I would just say, the family don't understand," said Lindsey. "That’s not going to bring them closure, to see that young man executed.”

Ultimately, the victims’ families — like many in the community — want just that: closure.

“It’s time,” said Tom Hoyer whose son Luke was killed in the shooting. “It’s been four and a half years of waiting. It’s time to move this to a conclusion, whatever it may be.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Hoyer and his wife Gina expressed that they initially believed a life sentence was the easiest outcome. However, over time, they decided that death was the most appropriate punishment for the killer who claimed the life of their son and sixteen others.

Though the path to advocating for the death penalty wasn’t always so clear for the Hoyers, they’ve come to the same conclusion that the other victims’ families have.

“Suffice it to say that all 17 families are in agreement about what should be the outcome of the trial,” Max Schachter tweeted when asked whether he had a strong opinion about the outcome of the trial.

Schachter’s son Alex was among the 17 victims of the 2018 massacre. Since then, he has been at the forefront of the fight against gun violence alongside other parents like father Fred Guttenberg whose daughter Jaime was also killed.

“The person who murdered my daughter is behind bars,” said Guttenberg on Twitter. “I want him to get the death penalty.”

Though many of the victims’ families have taken to social media and other outlets to express their desire for the death penalty, some survivors of the shooting have spoken out with a different view.

Cameron Kasky, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas the year of the shooting, has been vocal on social media about his desire for the death penalty to be abolished altogether. A survivor of the massacre, Kasky is a well-known anti-gun-violence activist. He gained media attention in 2018 for helping to organize the nationwide March for Our Lives student protest and was included in Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People of 2018.”

In a Twitter thread, Kasky said, “Rage is real. I’ve felt it and I’ve wanted him dead,” in reference to the confessed killer that terrorized his school over four years ago. However, Kasky believes, “The United States government is incapable of determining the value of somebody’s life and the state should not have the power to kill a human being, no matter how terrible their crimes have been.”

With family members, survivors, activists and members of the community on both sides of the aisle, the death penalty debate rages on in the case of the confessed Parkland killer — a case that has proven to be unlike any the state of Florida has ever seen.

What makes the killer’s sentencing trial especially unprecedented is the fact that he is the only mass school shooter in recent American history who survived long enough to face his sentencing trial. Other notorious mass murderers — like the Columbine shooters, Virginia Tech shooter, and the Sandy Hook shooter — either took their own lives or were gunned down by police before they could stand trial for their crimes.

As his notorious death penalty trial continues, the jury will soon be tasked with deciding the fate of the confessed Parkland shooter. Until then, it seems the one thing the entire community can agree on is the desire for this arduous trial to come to an end.