Crist, DeSantis, White House and others react to Parkland verdict

A jury recommended life in prison for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooter.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill, seated with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, touches her hands to her head as the last of the 17 verdicts were read at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill, seated with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, touches her hands to her head as the last of the 17 verdicts were read at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday. [ AMY BETH BENNETT | South Florida Sun-Sentinel ]
Published Oct. 13, 2022

A Broward County jury’s decision to recommend life in prison for the shooter who killed 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drew strong reaction from the families who lost sons, daughters and spouses in the attack, many of whom were outraged that the jury rejected the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz.

Now, the White House is weighing in, offering condolences to the families while saying that Thursday brought a “measure of justice and accountability” for the families affected by the 2018 Parkland high school massacre.

“President Biden is thinking today of the families in Florida who lost loved ones in the Parkland shooting, all of the survivors whose lives are forever changed, and all Americans who have lost loved ones to gun violence,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton told McClatchy and the Miami Herald. “While today’s verdict brought a measure of justice and accountability for this tragic crime, it won’t bring back the 14 students and 3 educators that the shooter brutally murdered nearly five years ago.”

Dalton’s statement, which pointed to the Safer Communities Act signed by Biden earlier this year, said the president believes more should be done in Congress to address gun violence, including passing a national assault weapons ban through the U.S. Senate.

Biden has previously said he opposes the death penalty, including while he was on the campaign trail when he ran in 2020.

The White House position stood in contrast to other Democrats and the comments of family members outside the courtroom, who said they were astonished at the verdict. Fred Guttenberg, who supported Biden during the 2020 campaign, said his reaction was “shame, anger, devastation.”

Florida politicians from both major parties, meanwhile, released statements expressing their disappointment on the verdict.

Related: Florida jury recommends life in prison for Parkland school shooter

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist said the families impacted deserved a higher “degree of justice” than rejecting the death penalty for the shooter.

“There are crimes for which the only just penalty is death,” Crist said in a statement. “The Parkland families and community deserved that degree of justice. I will continue to pray for healing for the families and every person impacted by this tragedy.”

Crist, the former St. Petersburg congressman vying to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Nov. 8 election, has previously told the Miami Herald he would consider the death penalty in heinous cases, such as the killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

Crist signed death warrants when he was Florida’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011.

“In cases like these, I believe the death penalty is an appropriate punishment,” he said last year.

Crist’s gubernatorial opponent, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, also condemned the verdict Thursday, saying that if any criminal action warranted the death penalty, it would be the premeditated murder of 17 people.

“I just don’t think anything else is appropriate, except the capital sentence in this case,” the governor said, during a news conference about school re-openings in southwest Florida amid Hurricane Ian. “And so I was very disappointed to see that.”

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The governor also more broadly criticized the justice system, which he said had moved too slowly to deliver a criminal penalty almost 4 1/2 years after the shooting. In the past, he said, Cruz would have been “executed in six months.”

“He’s guilty. Everybody knew that from the beginning,” DeSantis said. “And yet it takes years and years in this legal system that is not serving the interests of victims.”

Florida politicians and candidates reacted quickly on Thursday to the jury’s verdict on the fate of Nikolas Cruz’s life, capping a three-month trial and seven hours of deliberation on the 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. It is Florida’s deadliest mass shooting to go to trial, and galvanized student activism for gun reform at the time.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was Florida governor when the shooting happened, said the verdict is “not what many of us expected.”

As governor, Scott signed new measures into law in reaction to the massacre, including a so-called “red-flag” gun law that allows law enforcement to intervene and confiscate firearms in certain crisis situations.

“There are few days that go by without my thoughts turning to the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” Scott said in a statement. “I remain close with these families and know that many of us find it hard to understand how such brutal crimes could be met with anything but the most severe punishment allowed under our laws. While I have faith in our justice system, today’s decision is not what many of us expected.”

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who is running against U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, echoed others’ sentiments.

“I am disappointed at today’s verdict,” Demings said in a statement, adding that the Senate should do “the bare minimum” on gun safety by “getting guns out of the hands of criminals, mass murderers and terrorists.”

“Now, we must focus on the families who lost sons, daughters, and loved ones,” she added.

Relatives of victims who were sitting in the courtroom while the verdict was read appeared to be stunned by the ruling.

Jared Moskowitz, congressional candidate and former state representative in a district that included Parkland when the shooting took place, tweeted: “He should die 17 times!”

The Miami Herald also reached out to Rubio for comment, but did not receive an immediate reply.

McClatchy DC staff writers Michael Wilner and Alex Roarty contributed to this report.