MSD community divided on sentencing of school shooter

On Nov. 2, Judge Scherer imposed a consecutive life sentence for all 34 counts, including 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.


Screenshot from a YouTube livestream.

Jessica Abramsky, Contributing Writer

The trial revolving around the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) almost five years ago came to a close on Nov. 2. Maddie King, a Florida Atlantic University senior, who was an MSD student at the time, is thankful it’s over although many in the MSD community are not pleased with the sentence. 

“It’s really frustrating that it took so long [to get a sentence], especially because it keeps coming back up in the media, causing me to relive everything,” King said.

Broward County Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer imposed 34 consecutive life sentences without parole, one for each of the counts with which the MSD shooter was charged.

Following the jury’s recommendation on Oct. 13, the prosecution reminded the court that the victim’s families have the right to be heard under the Florida Constitution. Scherer set the dates for Nov. 1 and 2.

Multiple outlets, such as Law & Crime Network and LiveNOW from Fox, streamed the trial on YouTube. 

The MSD parents that have commented think the prosecution did an outstanding job in building its case and arguing the facts, finding the defense’s case highly unsettling and indifferent. Even the judge found aspects of the defense’s presentation troubling. 

“This is the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case,” declared Scherer, after the defense suddenly rested on Sept. 14, when they still had about 40 witnesses to call. “I honestly have never experienced a level of unprofessionalism in my career. It’s unbelievable.”

On Nov. 1, Scherer sent Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler to the back of the courtroom after he accused her of allowing the victim’s families to make threats to his children. After Scherer said she didn’t hear anything inappropriate, Wheeler assured her it happened, and if they were talking about her children, she would have definitely noticed it. 

“You need to sit down right now,” Scherer said. “You’re out of line. In fact, you’re excused.” 

Scherer then banished Wheeler to the back of the room to sit with Public Defender Gordon Weekes. She continued to say that threatening her children is inappropriate. “That just violated about every rule of professional responsibility,” she added.

The Law Office of the Public Defender of Broward County did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

On Nov. 2, some family members of the victims chose to speak because of this event and specifically called out the defense for their unprofessionalism and inappropriate behavior.

“So yesterday, I put out a message that I wasn’t going to speak,” said Jennifer Guttenberg, the mother of Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg. “But after yesterday’s events, I changed my mind.” 

She thanked Scherer for preventing the courtroom from becoming a “circus,” the defense team for their hard work, and the victim advocates.

Because of the actions of the defense team on Nov. 2, Fred Guttenberg, Jaime Guttenberg’s father, demanded Weekes’ resignation that day.

“I’m only looking to see two more things happen today,” Fred Guttenberg said. “One will be your formal sentencing of [the gunman]. And the other one, I want to see Gordon Weekes resign by the end of the day today.”

Gordon Weekes did not resign.

The Florida Bar is currently investigating Tamara Curtis, one of the defense attorneys, for sticking her middle finger up at the camera and laughing with the shooter on July 13. 

Florida Atlantic University’s Maddie King

The events of that fateful day have left their mark on King. She says that her resident assistant always warns her ahead of time for fire drills because her immediate instinct is to hide, not run. She says her professors, the FAU community, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) have been helpful.

“In all honesty, I don’t see anything that FAU needs to do more because everything that I’ve encountered has been really good and really positive,” King said.

She dreaded the start of the trial because she knew she would have to see pictures and hear about the trial in the news, even if she tried not to.

“Most bad days are just a bad day and you can move on and forget about it and this bad day has been drawn out for four and a half years,” King said.

Although King said a lot of the MSD community is upset with the sentence and would have preferred the death penalty, she disagrees. 

“I feel like I’m an outlier who is content with the result because most people from Douglas who I’ve talked to say, ‘he should be dead,’ and I’m like, ‘I get that, but also, life in prison with no parole isn’t going to be that great.’”

Some members of the MSD community think the death penalty would let the gunman off the hook, while others think it is the only appropriate punishment.

“I very much see them as equally punishing because on one hand, he’s going to have a really shitty life, or on the other hand, he’s just not going to have a life at all,” King explains.

The MSD Community

“The monster that killed them gets to live another day,” said Tony Montalto Jr., the father of Parkland victim Gina Montalto, following the sentencing on Oct. 13. “While this sentence fails to punish the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law, it will not stop the mission of the families of Stand with Parkland to affect positive change at the federal, state, and local levels to prevent school shooting tragedies from shattering other American families.” 

On Nov. 1, Gina’s brother, Tony Montalto III, made his first appearance in court to address the shooter.

“The worst part about it was, that morning, I did not say goodbye to her,” said Montalto III, who remembers his sister will not be there every day when he wakes up. “He is a murdering bastard that should be made an example by being sentenced to death. He shouldn’t live while my sister rots in a grave.”

Fred Guttenberg expressed frustration following the jury’s recommendation being read. 

“I don’t know how this jury came to the conclusions that they did today but 17 families did not receive justice,” Fred Guttenberg said on Oct. 13. “I hope and pray he receives the kind of mercy from prisoners that he showed to my daughter and the 16 others. He is going to go to prison and he will die in prison and I will be waiting to read the news on that. He should have received the death sentence today.”

During the Nov. 2 hearing, Scherer spoke to a few people after they gave their statements.“Ms. Lippel, I know I speak for everyone when I say thank you,” said Scherer, after MSD teacher Stacy Lippel spoke to the gunman. “That’s how myself and my staff will always remember you. You were a hero to those children that day, so thank you.”

Multiple family members, refusing to speak the gunman’s name, referred to him as “prisoner number 0893407,” including Montalto Jr.

Florida Government

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis believes this kind of behavior is the perfect case to use capital punishment. He is disappointed with the sentence, and that it took over four and a half years to get. 

“It takes years and years in this legal system that is not serving the interests of victims so I was very disappointed to see that,” DeSantis said. 

Florida law requires a jury to vote unanimously for the death sentence. Following the jury’s decision, DeSantis said he will do everything in his power to change the Florida law, set in 2017, that allows one juror to hold out and prevent the death penalty. 

“I’m sorry, when you murder 17 people in cold blood, the only appropriate punishment is capital punishment,” DeSantis said. “That was a miscarriage of justice that did not honor the victims and the families, and all that they went through.” 

Jessica Abramsky is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Jessica at [email protected].