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Thursday, June 01, 2023

Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumni reflect on Parkland shooter’s sentencing

Shooter escaped death penalty

<p>About 80 people hold candles and gather during a vigil on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021 for those killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting three years ago.</p>

About 80 people hold candles and gather during a vigil on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021 for those killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting three years ago.

Shaunak Maggon was a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and new to the U.S. when the sound of gunshots interrupted the school’s Valentine’s Day celebrations in 2018. 

Maggon, now a 20-year-old UF criminology and pre-law junior, moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia before enrolling at MSD. Stigma surrounding his home country frustrated him, given the violence and fear he experienced shortly after moving to the U.S. The shooting happened in his second semester at an American school; his mother recommended he go to therapy while he coped with disbelief.

“Here, I can’t even go to my own school without looking over my shoulder,” Maggon said. “It was a whole different experience altogether…How do you guys let this happen?”

For more than four years, Maggon and other alumni awaited a court decision regarding one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. But Nikolas Cruz, who shot and killed 14 students and three staff members and injured 17 others, narrowly escaped the death penalty in a recent jury recommendation.

Cruz, who pled guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 of attempted murder, was instead recommended to spendhis life in prison without parole — a controversial decision for victims’ families and MSD alumni.

The verdict concluded a highly publicized six-month sentencing trial. Florida law requires a unanimous jury verdict to order the death penalty. One juror decided against the death penalty, claiming that Cruz was mentally ill. Two other jurors followed suit.

Maggon was shocked when he learned of the decision, he said. 

“A lot of people wanted him to get life in prison. I thought the death penalty would have been a lot better for him,” Maggon said. “That might just be the malice talking. But for what he did to the 17 people who did pass away, I think he deserved it back.”

Throughout the trial, jurors listened to testimony from both family members of the 17 victims as well as injured victims. Most family members were in favor of the death penalty, or were uncertain, The New York Times reported. 

Jurors and journalists made a rare trip to the site of the massacre Aug. 4 where they walked along hallways riddled with bullet holes that were left untouched since the shooting.

The jury weighed aggravating factors against the mitigating circumstances the defense lawyers cited for life in prison. Under Florida statutes, aggravating factors that qualify for capital punishment require an act to be “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” 

Other MSD alumni and Parkland residents who are now UF students share Maggon’s sense of shock.

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Raj Selvaraj, an 18-year-old UF political science freshman, was an eighth grader at Westglades Middle School during the shooting. Around 2:45 p.m. that day, he said he watched a police car drive by his classroom window at what looked like about 70 mph. Shortly after, the school announced a lockdown.

“Something like that awakened everyone in the community,” Selvaraj said. “We went from a very quiet and calm community to one of the most politically-charged areas in Florida.”

Selvaraj was in a computer science lab when his teacher told the students not to look at their news feeds to avoid panic. But the middle school students watched livestreams and Snapchat videos of shots being fired and students being lifted onto gurneys.

“We tried to enjoy the day, but what was happening was that one of the biggest school shootings in American history happened right next to us,” he said. “The weight of it didn’t really hit until a few days later.”

Now a freshman in college, Selvaraj watched his former teachers testify in last week’s trial. 

“We all knew that this was going to happen at some point, in terms of the verdict being released now,” Selvaraj said. “But it was very shocking to me that it took four years.”

Remy Ronkin, a 21-year-old UF tourism, hospitality and event management and psychology junior, was a sophomore at MSD in theater class at the time of the shooting. Ronkin was in band with Alex Schachter, one of the victims who died that day, he said. 

Although Ronkin handled the aftermath of the shooting well, he said he talked through the experience with others and stayed up-to-date with last week’s trial.

“I despised the reasoning they gave to give him life,” Ronkin said. “But I think life is better because now he has to live with the consequences.”

Alec Nutter, a 19-year-old UF biomedical engineering sophomore, graduated from MSD in 2021. He hates how much publicity Cruz has received, he said.

“Why is a murderer's life held above that of 17 innocent people?” Nutter said. “Why does he get to live when they all died by his own hands?”

Nutter was also friends with victim Alex Schachter, a freshman bandmate who he had practiced with weekly.

“I will never forget this text for as long as I live: ‘Guys, Alex was shot. I don’t think he’s breathing,’” Nutter said. “I kept receiving word that my friends and people I knew were being shot and killed and there was absolutely nothing I could do.”

UF holds a yearly vigil in honor of the victims. 

“I have somewhere to go find support and pay my respects,” he said. “Even though I will never be the same again, each year it gets a little easier…Hopefully, the victims’ families will be able to find some sort of peace.

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Sophia Bailly

Sophia Bailly is a first-year journalism major and the graduate and professional school reporter. When she isn't writing, she enjoys reading, listening to podcasts and spending time outside.

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