When the jury in the death penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz, who pled guilty to killing 17 students and teachers and wounding 17 others at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, returned a verdict of life without parole earlier this month, the shock waves reverberated across the country.
“Families shocked as jury spares life of Parkland killer,” the New York Times headline read.
“Families of Parkland massacre victims rip jury for rejecting death penalty: ‘You set a precedent for the next mass killing'” was the headline in Insider.
Anyone reading the headlines and the interviews with the victims’ family members that followed could easily come away convinced that every family member of all 17 victims had wanted Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 when he opened fire at the school, to be executed.
Interviews with those who were relieved by the verdict were hard to find. As happens much too often when a jury chooses life over death in the penalty phase of a capital trial, reporters rush to interview the family members who hoped for a death sentence for the man or woman who killed their loved ones. The message is that victims’ family members speak with one voice, and that voice demands the ultimate punishment.
The Washington Post did report in September that Robert Schentrup, whose sister, Carmen, was killed in the Parkland shooting, did not want Cruz sentenced to death and had tweeted, “You cannot say that murder is heinous or unforgivable while advocating for the murder of someone else.” Still, his feelings didn’t receive anything close to the coverage of those distraught by the verdict.
“Families of victims are never unanimous in support of the death penalty,” says Judy Kerr, whose brother, Bob, was killed in 2003. When the media “profile Parkland victim families as monolithic in opposition to the findings of the jury, they have failed to tell an accurate and complete story,” she added.
The relief family members feel when they hear a verdict of life instead of death is just as valid a reaction as the anger, despair, and disbelief felt by those who hoped for a death sentence. It means the violence ends. It means they won’t be spending years thinking about the person who devastated their lives as appeals are heard, execution dates are scheduled and rescheduled, and the decision of whether to witness the execution always looms.
“It was so freeing,” DPF board member Bethany Webb said when the man who killed eight people, including her sister (and wounded her mother) in a mass shooting in Seal Beach, California, in 2011 wasn’t sentenced to death because of prosecutorial misconduct. Instead, he was sentenced to eight life terms, with an additional 232 years. The day after he was sentenced, she says she woke up “with a lightness. It wasn’t hanging over us. ‘We’re done,’ I kept thinking. We don’t ever have to go back to court, see him, see his picture in the paper. It just took a couple of days to sink in. Even then, I felt like I had started to turn a corner on letting the hatred go.”
Judy Kerr and Bethany Webb are not the only victims’ family members who feel this way. So, when and why did the media decide the only newsworthy reaction to a sentence of life instead of death was one of anger, despair, or disbelief?