Nikolas Cruz, the former student who killed 17 people at a South Florida high school in 2018, pleaded guilty Wednesday to 17 counts each of murder and attempted murder, paving the way for a jury to decide whether to sentence him to death or life without parole.
Appearing in Broward County court in a face mask and dark-colored shirt, Cruz listened as Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer guided him through the charges and potential punishment for the massacre that killed 14 students and three faculty members.
‘’These are capital felonies, and they’re punishable one of two ways, either life in prison or the death penalty,’’ Scherer said. ‘’Do you understand that you are facing a minimum, best-case scenario of life in prison?’’
‘’Yes, ma’am,’’ Cruz responded.
Before accepting the plea, Scherer emphasized that Cruz’s decision would be irreversible, even if he ended up on death row. ‘’You will not be able to change your mind,’’ she told him.
The judge then read the 34 charges and asked how he wished to plead. ‘’Guilty,’’ Cruz said after each.
The plea by Cruz, 23, came more than 3½ years after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. His change of plea from not guilty was an abrupt reversal in the case. His attorneys had long acknowledged Cruz’s guilt but said he would formally plead guilty only if prosecutors agreed to let him be sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors had refused, calling this the type of case that demanded the death penalty.
Cruz spoke in the courtroom Wednesday morning, making his first public remarks about the massacre since he was arrested. ‘’I am very sorry for what I did,’’ he said during a brief, rambling statement. ‘’I have to live with it every day. … It brings me nightmares, and I can’t live with myself.’’ Cruz also said he wanted the victims and their relatives to decide his sentence.
The parents of several of the victims attended the hearing via Zoom, and other relatives were in the courtroom. Some shook their heads as Cruz spoke. Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the attack, appeared in a video feed sitting beneath a banner reading, ‘’make our schools safe” and ‘’#LiveForAlyssa.’’
Ahead of the hearing, Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed by Cruz, said he planned to spend the day working on a fund-raiser in her name. ‘’Today, the murderer will plead guilty. The news will be about that, we will focus on Jaime’s life,’’ he tweeted Wednesday.
Other parents said Cruz’s plea of guilty offered a small measure of relief.
‘’We’re all OK with the idea that this will definitely move forward something that has been very slow,’’ Manuel Oliver, the father of 17-year-old victim Joaquin Oliver, told WSVN 7News before Cruz appeared in court.
‘’Joaquin is not here, but we are still here,’’ Manuel said. ‘’So we’ve got to do things for Joaquin, with Joaquin, along with Joaquin. We can save tons of kids.’’
A day earlier, on Tuesday, the families of those whom Cruz killed and dozens whom he injured or traumatized reached a $25 million settlement with the school district, according to a lawyer representing some of the families.
Attorney David Brill said the largest chunk of the settlement with Broward County Public Schools would be split among the families of the 14 students and three faculty members killed. The agreement settles 52 of the 53 negligence lawsuits filed against the school district over the shooting. The settlement includes 16 of the 17 people injured in the attack and 19 suffering from PTSD or other conditions years later.
The shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, devastated the community, horrified the country, and spurred a nationwide, student-led push for greater gun-control legislation. It also led to other fallout for pivotal figures in the case, including then-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was forced out of office, and Scot Peterson, at the time a sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer who did not confront the attacker and was later charged with neglect.
A state commission investigating the shooting found numerous lapses on the part of the Parkland high school as well as responding law enforcement officers, and local and federal authorities have been criticized as failing to act on numerous red flags related to Cruz, including explicit warnings that he could carry out a gun attack at a school.
Cruz, then 19, was arrested after the shooting and indicted on 17 counts of murder in the first degree and 17 counts of attempted murder. With his guilt effectively unchallenged, the main question surrounding the pending trial was whether jurors would think he should be sentenced to death.
Cruz’s plea now means the trial will more quickly reach the penalty phase. For Cruz to be sentenced to death, the jurors must be unanimous in their vote for death.
Despite the defense’s previous contention that he would plead guilty only in exchange for a life sentence, prosecutors said last week that they had not reached any deal in the case and that the matter still would proceed to the penalty phase.
Before the shooting, Cruz had repeatedly drawn the attention of local, state, and federal officials. But the numerous calls to authorities, warnings about him as a potential school shooter and recognition that he planned to buy a gun did not prevent the attack, during which terrified children hid under desks and were gunned down inside classrooms.