FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty Wednesday to murdering 17 people during a rampage at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, leaving a jury to decide whether he will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
Family members of the victims who were able to watch the hearing through Zoom, including their relatives, wept and joined hands as Cruz entered his pleas. Later, he apologized.
“Today we saw a cold and calculating killer confess to the murder of my daughter Gina and 16 other innocent victims at their school,” said Tony Montalto. Cruz had shot the girl, then 14, from close range while she was sitting in her class. “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.”
These guilty pleas set the scene for a penalty trial, in which twelve jurors decide whether Cruz, 23 years old should die or be sent to prison with no parole. Given the case’s notoriety, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer plans to screen thousands of prospective jurors. The jury selection process is set to start on January 4.
After answering many questions by Scherer, Cruz made his pleas and entered them. In the February 14, 2018 attack on Marjory Stoneman Doug High School in Parkland (just outside Fort Lauderdale), Cruz was charged with 17 charges of murder as well as 17 counts for attempted first-degree killing of those who were wounded.
As several parents shook their heads, Cruz apologized, saying, “I’m very sorry for what I did. … I can’t live with myself sometimes.” He also added that he wished it was up to the survivors to determine whether he lived or died.
Parents scoffed at Cruz’s statement as they left the courtroom, saying it seemed self-serving and aimed at eliciting unearned sympathy. Gena Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke died in the shooting, saw it as part of a defense strategy “to keep a violent, evil person off death row.”
She said her son was “a sweet young man who had a life ahead of him and the person you saw in there today chose to take his life. He does not deserve life in prison.”
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, but noted that it was not up to him to decide the confessed murderer’s fate.
“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. It is my decision to become a better person, and to improve the lives of every child. I don’t want this to happen to anybody again. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. But I will keep trying. That’s it.”
Cruz’s attorneys announced his intention to plead guilty during a hearing last week.
Former Broward State Attorney Mike Satz retold the story of the crime after Wednesday’s pleas. Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day 2018 during a seven-minute rampage through a three-story building at Stoneman Douglas, investigators said. Investigators said Cruz shot his victims with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in hallways and classrooms, returning to them to shoot more. Cruz was expelled by Stoneman Douglas one year prior due to a history of violent, unusual, and threatening behavior dating back to preschool.
Satz’s speech was over, and the judge had several seconds to regroup before speaking again.
Stoneman Douglas students were among those who started the March for Our Lives campaign to demand stronger gun laws in America.
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. Satz refused the offer and said Cruz was worthy of a death sentence. He then appointed himself as lead prosecutor. Satz, 79, stepped down as state attorney in January after 44 years, but remains Cruz’s chief prosecutor.
Harold Pryor is his successor and he opposes the death penalty, but has stated that he will adhere to 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 2 to 1.
Cruz’s attorneys will argue at the penalty hearing, that Cruz pleaded guilty and took responsibility.
The prosecution will, as in any trial, present evidence regarding the shooting. They may also show security video showing many of these killings. It will also allow them to demonstrate that Cruz was involved in the planning of the attack, and had threatened victims via cell phone videos. Witnesses from students, teachers and others who were there including those who were injured will also be allowed to testify.
Prosecutors will also present testimony from the victims’ parents and spouses to demonstrate the toll the deaths have had on families and the community.
The defense will then present mitigating evidence that will likely include testimony about Cruz’s life, including his long history of mental and emotional instability, his father’s death when he was 5 and his mother’s death four months before the shootings, when he was 19.
Each juror must consent to impose the death penalty. All 12 jurors must agree to a death sentence. Judge Scherer then makes the final determination.