Opinion: Did the verdicts in the school shooting cases deliver justice?

Editor’s note: Joey Jackson is a criminal defense attorney and legal analyst for CNN and HLN. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


In the wake of this week’s verdicts involving Parkland, Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting denialist Alex Jones, our justice system has come under intense scrutiny.

Gun violence and the tragic consequences of mass shootings continue to haunt our nation. Because of this, America was focused like a laser beam on what justice would look like for the juries trying them in both cases.

In the Parkland case, the school shooting avoided the death penalty, prompting many to question where justice has gone, or if the word can even be used in relation to the outcome. In the Sandy Hook case, the deniers of the shooting were awarded a nearly $1 trillion judgment to be paid to the families. Although it looked more like the justice people craved, many now wonder if the families will see any of the jury’s award.

Together, these rulings call into question whether our justice system is still viable or, instead, is irredeemably broken.

The only reason the Parkland case went to trial was for prosecutors to secure the death penalty. Cruz, who was 19 when he opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, already pleaded guilty last year to his 2018 actions, which left 17 dead and 17 injured. But the prosecutor, after consulting the families, wanted to favor the shooting death.

In order to achieve this result, however, the 12 members of the jury would have to unanimously decide that this punishment was justified. Their task was to decide whether the “aggravating factors” related to Cruz’s behavior — including the cold, calculated and premeditated nature of his actions — were sufficient to outweigh the “mitigating factors.” The defense pointed to mitigating factors such as his mother’s drug and alcohol use while he was still in the womb, as well as his troubled upbringing and the general upheaval in his life. In the end, with a three-member jury, he will be sentenced to life without parole.

The verdict left the families of the Parkland victims devastated, with one father saying he was “sick of those juries.” His was a widely held sentiment. If mischievous, despicable, heartless and dishonest acts like Cruz’s don’t warrant death, it’s hard to know any such circumstances. Regardless of one’s opinion on the death penalty, it is hard to ignore the anguish and pain of those families who hoped and wanted more. Can the decision of the Florida jury be said to be fair?

In Connecticut, six jurors in the civil case against Jones unanimously concluded that his lies about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre – which left 26 dead, including 20 children aged 6 and 7 – were fraudulent, defamatory, false and emotional. harmful to families. Most observers of the cases applauded the ruling, both for its size and the message it sent.

Given the $965 million awarded to families, it’s hard to say the system didn’t work. But was the prize so great as to be uncollectible? Perhaps a smaller award meant more by way of justice because his ability to pay could be more accurate.

Instead, questions remain about how much of that reward families will ever see. Will Jones continue to hide and hide his money, use bankruptcy to shield himself from liability and keep the family one step ahead of their creditors with endless appeals and legal maneuvering?

Either way, the system provides Jones with several avenues of attraction and additional means of protecting his assets. And isn’t that exactly the process that is needed? Even those among us who have hated our laws can use every legal means to avoid judgment and collection. If he tries to hide his assets illegally, there are ways families can take to thwart his efforts. That’s our system at work.

Both of those cases involved horrific school shootings, guns (and young people) rioting, senseless violence, and the tragic deaths of innocent children and selfless teachers and staff. The families affected by these horrific shootings have been forever changed and have had to relive the agony through these trials. They did this in pursuit of justice, whether or not they could ever fully see it.

But when we stop to think about the results, maybe the system worked as intended. Jones has been called out for his misrepresentations and contemptuous behavior. In fact, he is paying a high reputational price in the public square.

As such, conspiracy theorists may think twice in the future. So even if the families never see the money, they have forever changed the dynamics of the conspiracy, and the consequences for those who spread hate and lies.

And for Cruz, the 12 jurors could not agree on a sentence. The reversal of the jury’s disagreement was a life sentence. That is the balance that our judicial system provides. So the prosecutor and the family, who did not get the death penalty requested by Cruz, will suffer a punishment, a punishment that will force them to reflect on the carnage for years, even decades.

The sentences may not have been ideal, especially for the families involved, but both handed down hefty sentences nonetheless. Our judicial system is no doubt imperfect, but in all the controversy, confusion, bitterness, bitter feelings and disagreements, it is working as intended.