By Katie McLaughlin
A juror from the Parkland School Massacre Trial has described to Court TV how the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, avoided the death penalty.
Just over a week ago, a Florida jury made the recommendation that Cruz spend the remainder of his life in prison without the possibility of parole, sparing him a death sentence.
Last October, Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 people and wounding 17 others in the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Court TV spoke to Juror #8, Dr. Melody Vanoy, one of three jurors who voted to spare Cruz’s life. Vanoy, who sat through the three-month trial, told Court TV a little bit about what went on behind-the-scenes during deliberations, giving insight into how the 12-person panel ended up with their verdict.
In an interview with Court TV Legal Correspondent Julia Jenaé, Vanoy spoke about how her background helped her break down some of the evidence she was presented with.
Vanoy, a mental health advocate involved with Mental Health of America’s Southeast Florida chapter, works in human resources with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. She said that helped her take a closer look at the evidence, particularly in deliberations.
READ MORE: Parkland School Massacre Trial
Vanoy said she made it clear at the beginning of deliberations that she was undecided — as were three others on the panel of seven men and five women. One juror wanted to vote for life immediately, and eight wanted Cruz to get the death penalty.
Although things got tense in deliberations, Vanoy said the group had built a strong bond long before the defense rested its case.
“We prided ourselves on getting along, building cohesive relationships. There had been no drama up until that point. We had all, prior to that, shared e-mails and contact information and planned to still get together, so I would say from that standpoint it was a really good experience with the individuals chosen. It was a very diverse group.”
Vanoy said the testimony of mental health professionals and officials from some of the schools Cruz attended is what ultimately tipped the scales in favor of life in prison. She said looking at Cruz’s Child and Family Services report in its entirety also led her to believe that Cruz had a traumatic history before he was even born.
Jenaé noted that the jury managed to remain stoic when facing gut-wrenching testimony and images depicting brutality — images that individuals in the gallery weren’t privy to — and asked Vanoy what part of testimony or evidence was the most difficult for her.
For Vanoy, it was a combination of actually visiting the crime scene — the school itself — as well as looking at autopsy photos. She also had a hard time emotionally because she couldn’t talk to her fellow jurors about the case until both sides rested, and she couldn’t go home and talk to her family about it either.
Vanoy also set the record straight on reports that there was one holdout juror who was set on voting for life before deliberations even began.
“I think the assumption is that because she came to her decision earlier than most that she walked in with her decision,” she said. “But during the deliberation…we each had our list of evidence. We organized it in the room so we could each go and easily pull…what we wanted to see.”
“So she was doing just like everyone else; pulling key parts from both the prosecution and defense that she wanted to look at closely. She just announced…based on what she had seen and heard during the trial as well as what she was looking at on that day that she felt that she knew where her stance was. She also was okay with us taking a night to digest it, go on to the hotel. She didn’t put any pressure on any of us. Just because she knew that there was one vote for life she didn’t put any pressure on the rest of us to fill out the paperwork on that day even though she was pretty firm with where she stood after looking over additional evidence.”
Vanoy also explained what she meant when she said it wasn’t the jury that failed the victims’ families, it was Florida law.
“If we were to go just by the votes,” she said, “the majority of the voters voted for the death penalty.”
Under Florida law, a verdict of death must be unanimous.
Vanoy has no regrets about her vote, but she pointed out that “emotionally, everyone was aligned with the families,” and that she understands why victims’ families are upset with the jury’s decision.
“In cases like these we really have to pay attention to what the law is; and if we ask individuals, particularly jurors, to follow the law, I think we have to be open to alternative outcomes.”
Several other jurors have made statements to the media since the verdict. Jury foreman Benjamin Thomas, who voted for the death penalty, told CBS Miami that the case didn’t go the way he wanted. He said one juror was a “hard no” on the death penalty and that person was joined later by two others. Denise Cunha, who voted for life, wrote a letter to the judge detailing “very tense” deliberations and denying she had made up her mind before deliberations. Andrew Johnson, who voted for the death penalty, told The New York Times that he was very upset with the decision. He claimed that the jury didn’t deliberate correctly; that there was no dialogue or discussion.