Nikolas Cruz has pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder for the 2018 shooting massacre at a Florida high school, leaving a jury to decide whether he will be executed for one of the deadliest school shootings in US history.
Relatives of the victims who sat in the courtroom and watched the hearing via Zoom shook their heads or broke down in tears as Cruz entered his pleas and later apologized for his crimes.
“Today we saw a cold and calculating killer confess to the murder of my daughter Gina and 16 other innocent victims at their school,” Tony Montalto said. “His guilty pleas are the first step in the judicial process but there is no change for my family. Our bright, beautiful and beloved daughter Gina is gone while her killer still enjoys the blessing of life in prison.”
Cruz, 23, entered his plea after answering a long list of questions from circuit judge Elizabeth Scherer aimed at confirming his mental competency. He was charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder for those wounded in the attack on 14 February, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, located just outside Fort Lauderdale.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime died in the shooting, said he visited her grave this week to ask her for the strength to get through Wednesday’s hearing.
“She was the toughest, wisest person I ever knew,” he said. “My daughter always fought for what was right. My daughter despised bullies and would put herself in the middle of someone being bullied to make it stop.”
In the solemn courtroom, Scherer read each charge aloud – along with each victim’s name – and asked Cruz how he wanted to plead. Cruz, in a blue shirt and black vest, responded with “guilty” 34 times.
Cruz’s attorneys announced his intention to plead guilty during a hearing last week, as they turn their focus to saving him from a death sentence. By having Cruz plead guilty, his attorneys will be able to argue that he took responsibility for his actions. Cruz addressed the court in a statement on Wednesday, saying, “I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day.”
Anthony Borges, a former Stoneman Douglas student who was shot five times and severely wounded, told reporters after the hearing that he accepted Cruz’s apology.
“He made a decision to shoot the school,” Borges said. “I am not God to make the decision to kill him or not. That’s not my decision. My decision is to be a better person and to change the world for every kid. I don’t want this to happen to anybody again. It hurts. It hurts. It really hurts. So, I am just going to keep going. That’s it.”
The guilty pleas will set the stage for a penalty trial in which 12 jurors will determine whether Cruz should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. Given the case’s notoriety, Scherer plans to screen thousands of prospective jurors. Hearings are scheduled throughout November and December, with a goal to start testimony in January.
Cruz killed the 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day 2018 during a seven-minute rampage. He had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas a year earlier after a history of threatening, frightening, unusual and sometimes violent behavior.
The shootings led some Stoneman Douglas students to launch the March for Our Lives movement, which campaigns for stronger gun restrictions nationally.
“Today, the Parkland shooter plead guilty to murder. We won’t have closure until our laws prevent these tragedies in the first place,” the group tweeted on Wednesday.
Since days after the shooting, Cruz’s attorneys had offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, saying that would spare the community the emotional turmoil of reliving the attack at trial. But the longtime Broward state attorney Mike Satz rejected the offer, saying Cruz deserved a death sentence, and appointed himself lead prosecutor. Satz, 79, stepped down as state attorney in January after 44 years, but remains Cruz’s chief prosecutor.
His successor, Harold Pryor, is opposed to the death penalty but has said he will follow the law. Like Satz, he never accepted the defense offer – as an elected official, that would have been difficult, even in liberal Broward county, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one.
Earlier this week, the victims’ families reached a $25m settlement with Broward county public schools, which resolves 52 of the 53 negligence lawsuits filed by the families against the school district.
“It’s a fair and frankly remarkable result,” said attorney David Brill, adding, “It gives the families a measure of justice and accountability.”
Associated Press contributed to this story