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Nikolas Cruz has avoided the death penalty. Here’s what’s next for him now


By Christina Maxouris, CNN

Here’s what we know: Nikolas Cruz, the now 24-year-old who admitted to killing 17 people in Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, has avoided the death penalty.

A jury on Thursday recommended he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a decision which enraged many of the victims’ families who said Cruz being allowed to live is not justice served.

“Life in prison is NOT punishment! That is exactly what he wanted,” Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old Alex Schachter, who was murdered in the massacre, wrote on Twitter. He said the decision means Cruz will likely be protected while in custody, be able to “read, draw, receive phone calls & mail,” while “his 17 victims suffered in fear” before he killed them.

These are the Parkland school shooting victims

There is still much we do not know about what the rest of Cruz’s life in prison will look like, most of which will likely be sorted out once he is formally sentenced early next month.

But here is what could come next:

He will be sentenced in two weeks

The jury’s recommendation Thursday is just that: a recommendation and not an official sentence. Since Thursday, jurors have come forward about what they described were intense deliberations, and one juror reported feeling threatened; an allegation the local sheriff’s office is now investigating.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is expected to formally sentence Cruz November 1 at 9 a.m., but under Florida law, the judge cannot depart from the jury’s recommendation of life in prison.

Victims and family members are expected to speak before the sentence is delivered.

But as far as the sentence itself, the jury’s recommendation is final, Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes said in a Thursday news conference, adding in the state, “victims have a constitutional right to be heard at every stage of the proceeding.”

“The court is going to respect that right and give them an opportunity to be heard. And we appreciate that, and we recognize that, and that should be followed,” Weekes said. “However, we have to also recognize the jurors in the case sat through a number of days of very, very difficult, traumatic evidence, and they heard it all, and they weighed it all, and they rendered a verdict. We have to respect that.”

Cruz also has the right to make a statement in the sentencing if he chooses to, according to Janet Johnson, a Florida criminal defense attorney.

Cruz will then be processed in a reception center

Cruz, who has been in jail in Broward County since 2018, also has been sentenced to 25 years in state prison after he pleaded guilty to attacking a jail officer in November of that year.

He will likely remain in county custody for a couple weeks after his sentence is handed down before he is then placed in the custody of Florida’s Department of Corrections and transported to one of several reception centers in the state.

On Thursday, Weekes said Cruz will likely be taken to the South Florida Reception Center.

He will spend several weeks at the reception center “getting physical examinations, mental health examinations,” Johnson said. “They’ll look at his record, they’ll look at the level of crime that he’s convicted of, which is obviously the highest, and they’ll recommend a facility somewhere in the state.”

The chosen facility is determined by “reviewing the seriousness of (the inmate’s) offenses, length of sentence, time remaining to serve, prior criminal record, escape history, prison adjustment, and other factors,” according to the Florida Department of Corrections website.

“The most serious offenders with the longest sentences and those least likely to adjust to institutional life are placed in more secure facilities,” the corrections department website noted. Based on those evaluations, the individual is then transferred to the facility deemed most appropriate.

Because Cruz is a high-risk offender, he will likely be placed in a prison with other high-profile or “very dangerous criminals,” Johnson said.

“But he wouldn’t be isolated, which of course, is a real threat for him because there may be people who want to do ‘prison justice,’ who didn’t feel that the sentence he got in court was enough,” Johnson added.

According to a corrections department handbook, there are several custody classifications of inmates, among them, close custody for inmates who “must be maintained within an armed perimeter or under direct, armed supervision when outside of a secure perimeter.”

The corrections department did not respond to CNN’s questions regarding what kind of custody Cruz may be placed under.

His defense hinted at dangers inside prison

Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill also hinted about the dangers Cruz will face in prison during her closing arguments in the death penalty trial, saying he will “wait to die” in a facility, “either by natural causes or whatever else could possibly happen to him while he’s in prison.”

And in a news conference following the jury’s recommendation, Linda Beigel Schulman, the mother of geography teacher Scott Beigel, who was killed in the high school, said Cruz will “have to look over his shoulder (in prison) every minute of the rest of his life.”

“I hope he has the fear in him, every second of his life, just the way he gave that fear to every one of our loved ones, who he murdered,” she said. “He should live in that fear, and he should be afraid every second of the day of his life.”

His rights in prison could include, mail, visits, tablets

Parents of Parkland victims, including Schachter, have pointed to parts of life Cruz will still get to experience while in prison their children were robbed of.

It includes receiving mail and seeing visitors, which he will likely have the right to do, Johnson said. He could also have a tablet through which he will be able to email and text others, Johnson added.

The department of corrections website pointed out inmates and their families are allowed to communicate through “interactive, stationary kiosks available in general population housing units, as well as tablets.” Those services are available in all the major correctional institutions in Florida, according to the site.

“And you can see the argument (of the victims’) families saying, ‘We don’t get to do that,’ ” Johnson added. “And it’s understandable.”

What mental health treatment could look like

The corrections department also did not answer CNN’s question about what kind of mental health treatment Cruz may receive while in prison.

During the trial, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office released more than 30 pages of writings and drawings by Cruz which revealed disturbing thoughts he’s had while in custody, focusing on guns, blood and death. On one page, Cruz wrote: “All I want is to go to death row. I don’t want life. Please help me go to death row.” On another, he addressed his family, telling them he is sad and is hoping to die of a heart attack by taking painkillers and through extreme eating.

Also while in jail, Cruz drew pictures of bullets, guns and people being shot. He wrote he “never wanted to be alive,” and he hopes he dies and never wakes up and “my life is painful, always has always will” be.

His defense team argued Cruz is a “brain-damaged, mentally ill” individual who, among other conditions, suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, stemming from his mother’s substance and alcohol abuse during pregnancy, McNeill said during closing arguments.

And Cruz appeared to control his behavior in the courtroom, McNeill said, because “he’s medicated, and he’s under psychiatric care. He’s being treated by the jail psychologist.”

Cruz will receive a psychiatric examination when he arrives at the reception center, Johnson said, which will help determine his diagnosis and what medication he may require.

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