Family members of Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting victims were left angry and bewildered after a Florida jury spared shooter Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty on Thursday. Many chose to express their disbelief to the press after the decision became public, including the wife of Chris Hixon, the Poconos native who was killed in the crossfire.

Chris, hailed by many as a hero, graduated from Pleasant Valley High School in 1986. He was athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of the shooting.

“This verdict, for me, what it says to me, what it says to my family,” Chris’ wife, Debra Hixon, said after the jury’s decision on Thursday. “What this says to other families is that (Nikolas Cruz’s) life meant more than the 17 who were murdered.”

“The 17 people who were shot, and the thousands of people in this community, in this school, who were terrorized and traumatized every day. And how to say, ‘yes it’s cruel’, that it was ‘odious’ and that ‘it was planned’, and ‘we all agree on that, but oh— he may have had a mental illness, or he… had a hard time growing up.

“I have a son with special needs.” Hixon continued. “I have a son who checked all those boxes…a lot of those boxes that the shooter also checked. And you know what? My son is not a murderer.”

From Palm Beach Post Office:Tribute to the 17 victims of the Parkland school shooting

Pleasant Valley School District honored Hixon’s memory in 2018, 2019

“When Chris heard the gunshots, he got in his golf cart and drove to school and walked in and found the shooter,” former PV High School principal Matt Triolo said during an interview. a ceremony in 2019. “He saved as many students as he could before the gunman moved on. When police arrived at Chris’s location, having been shot multiple times, he stood against the wall and always had a radio in his hand, he was going to protect his students until he could absolutely no longer protect them.

PV dedicated a fitness center in Chris Hixon’s name in May 2019. Chris’s memory was also honored with an ESPY Top Coach award and a scholarship for students in Broward County, Florida.

Pleasant Valley High School officially opened the Chris Hixon Fitness Center on Monday, April 29.  Hixon, a PV graduate, was one of 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. Through his efforts, he was able to save the lives of several students. [CONTRIBUTED]
FILE - This undated file photo shows Chris Hixon, the athletic director of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  The ESPYs are breaking tradition for this year's top coach award, posthumously awarding it to three Florida high school coaches who died protecting their students from gunfire.  Family members of high school heroes Marjory Stoneman Douglas Aaron Feis, Scott Beigel and Chris Hixon will receive the honor at the awards ceremony on July 18 in Los Angeles, the ESPN network announced on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

In 2018, the Pleasant Valley School District released the following statement:

“The Pleasant Valley School District is sad to announce the loss of one of our own. Chris Hixon, a graduate of Pleasant Valley High School in 1986, was one of the victims of yesterday’s shooting in the county of Broward. Chris was the athletic director of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and will be fondly remembered by many in the Pleasant Valley community. By all accounts, Chris was an exceptional educator and role model for his students. Our Thoughts and our prayers are with his friends and family.

Shortly after the 2018 shootings, students in the Pleasant Valley, Stroudsburg and Pocono Mountain school districts held their own ceremonies honoring the 17 Parkland shooting victims.

At the PV, nearly 150 students gathered in the parking lot listening to the names of the dead, read by the students. A minute of silence followed each name.

Chris Hixon’s name was read last, and by then college principal Rocco Seiler. The two had been classmates.

Students, faculty and staff of Pleasant Valley High School gather on the Brodheadsville campus Wednesday, March 14, 2018 to remember those killed in the Parkland Florida school shooting.  The names of the victims were read aloud to the silent crowd, including Chris Hixon, a 1986 graduate of Pleasant Valley High School. [Keith R. Stevenson/Pocono Record]

From 2019:Pleasant Valley Opens Chris Hixon Fitness Center

Victims’ family members react to Cruz’s life sentence

Chen Wang, cousin of victim Peter Wang, called the decision to spare Cruz the death penalty “crazy” at the press conference. “We need justice.” He continued.

Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to murdering 14 students and three staff and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

The three-month trial to determine whether he should be executed included graphic videos and photos of the massacre and its aftermath, harrowing testimonies from family members of the victims and a tour of the building still spattered with blood. The jury rejected the death sentence after deliberating for about seven hours over two days.

Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed by Cruz, said the families were “beyond disappointed” with the jury’s decision.

“It should have been the death penalty, 100%. … I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. I am so disappointed and frustrated with this result. I can not understand. I just don’t understand.”

Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote on at least one count. The jury found that there were aggravating factors justifying the death penalty for each victim, such as agreeing that the murders were “particularly heinous, atrocious or cruel”. But one or more jurors also found mitigating factors, such as unaddressed issues he had. In the end, the jury couldn’t agree that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, so Cruz will get life without parole.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will officially hand down the life sentences on November 1. Relatives, as well as students and teachers injured by Cruz, will have the opportunity to speak.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.