With the conclusion of his death penalty trial looming, families of the Parkland school shooter’s victims will soon learn whether he will spend the rest of his life in prison or be sentenced to death, an outcome many have indicated they prefer.
But Robert Schentrup – whose 16-year-old sister Carmen was among the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 – isn’t one of them.
“Logically, it doesn’t follow for me that we say, ‘murdering someone is this horrible, heinous, awful, terrible thing, and in order to prove that point, we’re going to do it to someone else.’”
“And I understood that if this is something that I felt that I believe that it needed to apply in my personal case and beyond,” he said. “I had to look deep into my values and say, is this something that connects with it? And if so, live through that.”
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating in the gunman’s trial this week, almost a year after he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, to decide whether to recommend he be sentenced to death. The jury must be unanimous to recommend death. If they do, the judge can decide to follow the jury’s recommendation or sentence the gunman to life in prison.
In making their case for death, prosecutors have argued the shooting was calculated and premeditated, while the shooter’s defense attorneys have called for a life sentence, presenting evidence of his troubled upbringing at home and in school and developmental difficulties he displayed throughout his life.
Schentrup’s personal stance puts him at odds with many of the victims’ families, including his own parents, who told CNN in a statement the death penalty is the right punishment for their daughter’s murderer.
“My wife and I love our son,” Philip Schentrup, Carmen and Robert’s father, wrote in an email, “and are proud of the thoughtful, intelligent and engaged young man he has become. We disagree with our son however, on this topic.”
“As shown in the trial,” he wrote, “Carmen’s murderer expressed pride and joy in murdering Carmen and 16 other incredible people. We believe under Florida law a death sentence is the appropriate outcome.”
The family does not like to disagree. “It’s hard for me to be of an opinion that my parents don’t agree with and actively dislike,” Robert Schentrup said.
“But I also feel very much that this is something that I believe in, that is in accordance with my values,” said Schentrup, whose opposition to the death penalty extends beyond the case of his sister’s killer to capital punishment as a whole for the same apparent flaws critics point to; its legacy as a tool of racial oppression – or its use on people with intellectual disabilities, among others.
“I also feel a certain responsibility to let it be known,” he added, “so people can – if they’re saying, ‘well, I defer to the victims’ – make an informed choice about their own feelings on this issue.”
A brilliant sister with big dreams
Schentrup, who was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Central Florida when his sister was killed, remembers her as a brainy and ambitious teenager, someone whose focus was doing well in school so she could go on to study medicine and eventually conduct research to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Carmen was in the top of her class, her brother said, and was accepted to the University of Florida’s honors program and was also accepted to the University of Washington. She was also a National Merit Scholarship finalist, but Carmen never knew, because her family found out the day after she was killed.
The program for a concert in memory of Robert Schentrup's sister Carmen Schentrup.
But she was like a lot of other teens, too, with a close-knit group of friends she would always hang out with, Schentrup remembered. And she was an enthusiastic fan of comic books, cartoons and British television. When they were younger, Schentrup and his sister were almost best friends, he said, thanks in part to how close they were in age.
As they grew older and their interests diverged, television remained something they bonded over; Schentrup recalled binge-watching the entirety of “Criminal Minds” with Carmen and their younger sister.
Schentrup was looking forward to what their relationship would be like when they were older, believing they would have the same strong bonds he sees between his parents and their own siblings.
“Unfortunately, we never got the chance to do that.”
‘Killing someone else will not bring her back’
Carmen’s murder was hard, Schentrup said, for him and his family. And the way she died – and the unusually public nature of it – was strange and confusing.
“It layers on a whole bunch of other things to it,” he said, “just having kind of everyone know about it, and maybe not know I was related to it.”
Schentrup struggles, he said, with “the preconceived notions that people have” about the shooting. “And the fact that it’s super awkward and people don’t know how to talk about it – I also still don’t know how to talk about it – just makes it that much more difficult and makes the conversation that much harder.”
In the years since, Schentrup has moved to Seattle, Washington, and, like many other victims’ relatives, has poured himself into addressing gun violence: Today he works on the organizing team for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and helps manage its youth program called Team ENOUGH.
Candles glow at a memorial site to honor 17 people who were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
But as painful as the loss of his sister is, Schentrup does not believe sentencing the killer to death is the solution. And as the trial proper got underway this summer, he wanted to make that known.
Schentrup was “dreading” the court proceedings, he wrote in a statement, “(b)ecause this is the part where people will tell me that retribution will bring ‘justice’ and ‘healing’ to me and my family.”
“This is the part where pundits on TV will invoke the name of my sister to support the murder of another human being,” he said. “This is the part where people try to convince me that vengeance should make me feel better and that it will bring me ‘closure’ so that ‘I can continue to heal.’”
“But I do not f**king care,” Schentrup wrote, “because my sister is dead, and killing someone else will not bring her back.”
‘Let the court get it right this time’
But 14 students and three school staff members killed in the Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting each have their own set of loved ones, who, in turn, have their own opinions about what outcome the killer’s trial should render.
Many have indicated they support the death penalty, a stance underscored by the raw and painful testimony parents and other family members gave during the trial, detailing how the killer’s actions had robbed them not only of their children and loved ones but also their futures and all the memories that would have been made.
After the killer pleaded guilty last year, Tony Montalto, the father of 14-year-old Gina Montalto, told CNN “he deserves as much of a chance as he gave my daughter and everyone else on February 14 of 2018.” The father of 17-year-old Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, Manuel Oliver, also believes the killer deserves death, telling CBS News, “The fact that Florida has the death penalty, if it’s not for these kinds of cases, I don’t know why do we have it.”
Jennifer and Tony Montalto listen as the assistant medical examiner for Palm Beach county testifies about the gunshot wounds sustained by their daughter Gina Montalto, during the penalty phase of her killer's trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 26.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime Guttenberg was murdered, previously told Newsweek the killer “should pay the ultimate price with his life.” And Lori Alhadeff, the mother of Alyssa Alhadeff, also 14, said it was “very important” to her family that the gunman is not allowed to live out his days in prison, according to CNN affiliate WPLG.
Three years ago, when defense attorneys said the gunman would plead guilty for a life sentence without parole, Michael B. Schulman – whose son, geography teacher Scott Beigel was one of three staff members killed – wrote an op-ed for the South Florida Sun Sentinel calling for prosecutors to accept the plea.
At the time – more than two years before the start of the trial – Schulman said to secure the death penalty instead, families would have to live through the “trauma of a trial” and relive the murders of their loved ones.
“‘Going for the death penalty’ will not bring our loved ones back to us. It will not make the physical scars of those wounded go away. In fact, what it will do is to continue the trauma and not allow the victims to heal and get closure,” Schulman wrote.
Perhaps nothing highlights the spectrum of feelings on the shooter’s fate more than the disagreement between Schentrup and his parents. After her son shared his statement on Twitter expressing his opposition, April Schentrup retweeted it, writing, “I love but disagree with my son.”
“If police did their job that day the shooter would’ve been killed at MSD. Since they didn’t do what was needed then, let the court get it right this time,” she wrote. “Carmen’s murderer deserves the death penalty.”
‘We think different things’
Schentrup’s opposition to the death penalty was more of an intellectual response than an emotional one, he indicated. In the aftermath of his sister’s killing, he said, he didn’t know what to think about the death penalty. In a general sense he felt he was opposed to it. But one of his family members had been murdered.
It was only in the last year and a half or so, he said, with the trial approaching that he thought about it more and his opinion was clarified, thanks in part to “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The memoir retraces the early days of the non-profit organization, with a focus on Stevenson’s work representing a man sentenced to die for a crime of which he was innocent.
Robert Schentrup at his Seattle apartment on September 15, 2022.
The book and Schentrup’s own research opened his eyes to issues many opponents of capital punishment point to in their critiques of the death penalty, one being its racist history in the United States and how unevenly it’s applied to defendants of color.
Since 1977 when executions were reintroduced, nearly 300 Black defendants have been executed for the murder of a White victim, while just 21 White defendants have been executed for the murder of a Black victim, according to a 2020 report by the Death Penalty Information Center.
But Schentrup also pointed to cases in which innocent people were executed for crimes they didn’t commit and use of the death penalty against people with intellectual disabilities. On top of that, Schentrup questions the common argument in support of capital punishment that the death penalty deters crime. And he believes it’s morally wrong for the state to take the life of an individual because that individual took the life or lives of others, he said, quoting a phrase often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”
It was these intellectual arguments that were most convincing for him personally, Schentrup said. But he’s not confident his own position will prevail in jurors’ minds, telling CNN he believes the sentence will be death.
But Schentrup hopes that by sharing his personal stance others will examine the issue for themselves. In conversations with friends and acquaintances, he felt many were simply deferring to what the victims’ families wanted, he said.
“I wanted to show that we think different things. My parents’ beliefs and the beliefs of the other parents are different than my belief on the death penalty. We’re not all in support. And we’re not all in opposition.
“Part of it was to push people to think internally about their stance and really come to their own conclusion about it,” he said. But he also wanted to “provide a different perspective than what everyone else is hearing, which is that this is for the families. And I wanted to show that, no, this is for some of them. But not all.”