Editor’s Note: Joey Jackson is a criminal defense attorney and a legal analyst for CNN and HLN. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In light of the verdicts reached this week involving the Parkland, Florida, school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting denier, Alex Jones, our system of justice has come under intense scrutiny.
Gun violence and the tragic consequences of mass shootings continue to trouble our nation. As such, America was focused like a laser beam on what justice would look like to the juries sitting in judgment on both matters.
In the Parkland case, the school shooter evaded the death penalty, leading many to wonder where justice has gone – or whether that word can even be used in connection with the result. In the Sandy Hook case, the shooting denier was hit with a nearly $1 billion judgment that must be paid to the families. While that looked more like the justice people thirsted for, many are now wondering whether the families will see any of that jury award at all.
Together, these verdicts call into question whether our justice system is still viable — or, instead, if it’s irreconcilably 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 in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had already pleaded guilty last year for his 2018 actions – which left 17 dead and another 17 injured. But prosecutors, in consultation with the families, wanted to pursue death for the shooter.
In order for that result to be achieved, however, it would have required 12 jurors to unanimously conclude that such a penalty was warranted. Their mission was to decide whether “aggravating factors” associated with Cruz’s conduct – including the cold, calculated and premeditated nature of his actions – were enough to overcome the “mitigating factors.” The defense pointed to such mitigating factors as the drug and alcohol use of his mom while he was still in her womb, as well as his troubled upbringing and the overall turmoil in his life. Ultimately, with three jurors holding out, he will be sentenced to life without parole.
This verdict left Parkland victims’ families livid, with one father saying he was “disgusted by those jurors.” His was a sentiment that was widely shared. If actions as twisted, abhorrent, heartless and callous as Cruz’s do not warrant death, it’s difficult to know of a circumstance that would. No matter what anyone’s opinion is about the death penalty, it’s hard not to appreciate the anguish and pain of those families, who expected and wanted more. Can the Florida jury’s decision here be said to be just?
In Connecticut, the six jurors in the civil case against Jones unanimously concluded that his lies, his insistence that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre – which left 26 dead, including 20 children ages 6 and 7 – was a hoax, were defamatory, false and emotionally detrimental to the families. The vast majority of case observers applauded the verdict because of the judgment’s size and the message it sent.
Given the $965 million that the families were awarded, it’s hard to say that the system didn’t work. But was the award so large as to be uncollectible? Perhaps a smaller award would have meant more by way of justice as his ability to pay may have been more definite.
Instead, questions remain about how much of that award, if any, the families will ever see. Will Jones continue to hide and conceal his money, use bankruptcy to shield himself from liability and stonewall the families with endless appeals and legal maneuvers to stay a step ahead of his creditors?
Either way, the system affords Jones various avenues of appeal and additional avenues of safeguarding his assets. And isn’t that exactly what due process is all about? Our laws are designed to allow even the hated amongst us to employ all legal means to avoid judgments and collection. If he attempts to conceal his assets in an unlawful manner, there are avenues that the families can take to thwart his efforts. That’s our system at work.
Both of these cases involved abominable school shootings, deranged (and young) gunmen, senseless violence, and the tragic death of innocent children and selfless teachers and staff. The families impacted by these horrific shootings have been forever altered and have had to relive the agony through these trials. They did this in pursuit of justice that they may, or may not, ever fully see.
But when we stop to reflect upon the results, perhaps the system worked exactly as intended. Jones has been called out for his misrepresentations and despicable behavior. He is, indeed, paying a reputational price in the public square.
As such, those who spread conspiracy theories may think twice in the future. So even if the families never see any money, they have altered the conspiracy dynamic forevermore, and the consequences to those who spread hatred and lies.
And for Cruz, 12 jurors could not reach a unanimous decision as to the penalty. The fallback for the lack of jury unanimity was a life sentence. That’s the balance our judicial system provides. So while Cruz didn’t get the death penalty prosecutors and families sought, he’ll face a punishment that hopefully will force him to spend years, even decades, reflecting on the carnage he wrought.
The verdicts may be far from perfect, especially for the families involved, but both delivered significant punishments nonetheless. Our judicial system is unquestionably an imperfect one, but in all the controversy, confusion, acrimony, bitter feelings and discord, it’s working exactly as it was intended.
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