Victims' relatives confront Florida school killer at sentencing

By Brendan O'Brien

(Reuters) -Grieving relatives of the 17 students and teachers killed in a 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, confronted the killer, Nikolas Cruz, with tearful, angry words as his sentencing hearing began on Tuesday.

At the conclusion of the hearing on Wednesday, Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is due to sentence Cruz, 24, to life in prison without possibility of parole, a sentence decided by a jury. The jury voted to spare Cruz from the death penalty for one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, a decision several survivors' relatives decried in court as injustice.

"You are pure evil," Anne Ramsay, the mother of 17-year-old Helena Ramsay, told Cruz, who pleaded guilty last year to premeditated murder. He listened to the victim impact statements at a table in the courtroom, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, large spectacles and a COVID-19 mask.

Inez Hixon called Cruz a "domestic terrorist" for killing her father-in-law, school athletics director Chris Hixon, two other staff members and 14 students with a semi-automatic rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, about 30 miles (50 km) north of the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.

"I wish no peace for you," Inez Hixon said in emotional testimony. "I wish nothing but pain. And I hope that every breath you take you remember that's a breath that you stole."

Cruz was 19 at the time of his attack and had been expelled from the school. Some of the survivors went on to organize a youth-led movement for tighter gun regulations in the United States, which has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world and where mass shootings have become recurrent.

Many family members who sat through the three-month penalty trial said they were dismayed by the jury's decision to recommend life in prison without possibility of parole instead of the death penalty for Cruz. Florida law requires that Scherer must follow the jury's recommendation in formally sentencing Cruz.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, said on Twitter that he will not speak during the hearing.

"Because I have decided that it simply won’t change reality or the way I feel," he wrote. "The reality is that I will still visit Jaime at the cemetery and the monster's fate will not change. It has already been decided."

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Donna Bryson and Jonathan Oatis)