Parkland shooter’s life sentence is ‘severe and just,’ Miami archbishop says

Wenski Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami | Ana Rodriguez-Soto/Florida Catholic

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami spoke out this week to support a life sentence for the man who killed more than a dozen people at a Florida high school in 2018, calling the punishment both “severe and just.”

“A sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole is a severe and just punishment that also will allow Nikolas Cruz to continue to reflect on the grave harm he caused,” Wenski said in an Oct. 13 statement.

Cruz killed 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with a semiautomatic rifle during a February 2018 rampage. The 24-year-old will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole after being sentenced in a Florida court on Thursday.

Willful murder is a heinous crime, Wenski said, but “human dignity — that of the convicted as well as our own — is best served by not resorting to the extreme and unnecessary punishment of capital punishment.”

Many observers, including victims’ family members, had expected a death sentence, NPR reported. The trial represented the deadliest U.S. mass shooting ever to go to trial, as all other perpetrators of 17-person U.S. mass killings have taken their own lives or been killed by police, PBS Newshour reported.

Florida has the largest active death row in the United States — indeed, in all the Americas. California has more prisoners on death row, but the state’s death penalty is currently under moratorium.

As of 2020, no death row inmate in Florida has been granted clemency since 1983. The Catholic bishops of Florida have collectively expressed their opposition to the death penalty ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that forced states to reassess their statutes for capital offenses.

Among the arguments put forth by Cruz’s legal team was the contention that his personality problems were due in part to his mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy, as well as childhood sexual abuse. The prosecution argued in response that Cruz is a sociopath.

“While not excusing his actions, it is clear that multiple and systemic breakdowns within family services, police, and the public school system failed him and the rest of us as well,” Wenski noted in his statement.

“Seemingly nobody recognized the inadequacies in Mr. Cruz’s life or the state of his mental health. His numerous threats of violence that preceded the mass murder were addressed inadequately, if at all.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting an update promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018, describes the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The change reflects a development in Catholic doctrine in recent years. St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.” And Pope Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

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