A jury in Florida will recommend whether he should be sentenced to life in prison or death for the rampage that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The former student who waged a deadly attack against his classmates and teachers in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 pleaded guilty on Wednesday to the premeditated murder of 17 people and the attempted murder of 17 others, leaving his fate — either spending his life in prison or facing execution — in the hands of a jury.
The 34 guilty pleas were enumerated in a somber courtroom filled with the families of those who were killed and injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. The community had braced for perhaps a monthslong trial but now soon faces what could be a grisly penalty phase as the state seeks to put the former student, Nikolas Cruz, to death.
Mr. Cruz, wearing a blue shirt under a black sweater vest, pleaded guilty after the judge read a lengthy list of questions about whether he understood the gravity of his plea and that it could lead to his death. He responded with “guilty” 34 times as Judge Elizabeth Scherer read each charge — including each victim’s name — and asked how he wanted to plea.
The case next heads to a penalty phase, scheduled to begin on Jan. 4, in which a jury will be selected and, after hearing testimony, will recommend a sentence to the judge.
At the hearing on Wednesday, a prosecutor laid out a chilling account of Mr. Cruz’s crimes, describing his path down the school’s hallways as he searched for victims. In the courtroom, relatives of the victims consoled each other as others breathed deeply or silently wiped tears from their eyes.
Afterward, Mr. Cruz, 23, apologized to them as he hunched over a podium. Appearing to read from a prepared statement, he said he has had trouble living with himself.
“I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day,” he said to the victims’ families, adding: “I love you, and I know you don’t believe me.”
Mr. Cruz suggested that drugs were the source of some of society’s ills. “I believe this country would do better if everyone would stop smoking marijuana and doing all these drugs and causing racism and violence out in the streets,” he said.Armed with a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle, Mr. Cruz, then 19, killed 14 students and three faculty members and injured 17 more people in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. “You’re all going to die,” Mr. Cruz said in one of three videos he recorded on his cellphone before the shooting. Outraged Parkland students helped ignite a national movement of young people against gun violence.
The Parkland case will be the rare instance of a mass shooter who lives to see any sort of trial, since many of them end up dying in their attacks. The white supremacist who killed nine members of a Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 was tried in federal court, found guilty and sentenced to death. The gunman who killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in state court, was found guilty and sentenced to life.
From the start, Mr. Cruz’s lawyers said he would agree to plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment. But the top prosecutor in Broward County at the time of the attack, Michael J. Satz, said he would pursue the death penalty. Mr. Satz’s term as state attorney has since ended, but he is still leading the case.
Defense lawyers did not discuss the reason for the decision to enter a guilty plea despite the risk of execution, but legal analysts said it could provide advantages. Once a defense lawyer has determined that a guilty verdict is unavoidable, arguing otherwise might only burn good will with jurors, said William N. Nettles, a former United States Attorney in South Carolina.
“In cases like that, it’s often the best course of action to decline to fight a losing battle and instead fight a battle that you might win — and that’s the sentencing battle,” he said.
During sentencing, the defense can present mitigating evidence that would not typically be admissible during the guilt phase, such as background about the defendant’s childhood or “anything they can do to inject to the jury something humanizing,” said George Brauchler, a former district attorney in Colorado who prosecuted the gunman in the Aurora shooting.
“We get to go to a jury and say, ‘Our client did wrong, and he admits he did wrong, but this young man is redeemable at some level, even though he doesn’t deserve to take a free breath again,’” he said.
In Florida, judges can only sentence a defendant to death if a jury unanimously recommends the death penalty, and even then, judges can override the jury and sentence a defendant to life in prison, though they rarely do so. If even one juror does not vote for the death penalty, Mr. Cruz will be spared execution. Judge Scherer will continue to oversee the proceedings in the penalty phase.
There are 305 people on death row in Florida; the state executed an average of three people each year from 2010 through 2019.
Last week, Mr. Cruz pleaded guilty to battery and other charges in a separate case related to a jailhouse fight with a sheriff’s deputy that was supposed to go to trial this week. The judge scheduled Wednesday’s hearing on the shooting case in a larger courtroom to accommodate victims’ families, a gaggle of reporters and a livestream on Court TV.
Some victims’ families attended court for the first time to hear Mr. Cruz declare himself guilty. Among them were Tony and Jennifer Montalto, the parents of Gina Montalto, who was a 14-year-old freshman at Stoneman Douglas. At one point during the hearing, Mr. Montalto comforted Ms. Montalto as she dabbed her eyes.
After the hearing, Mr. Montalto called the guilty plea an important step, even if “for our family, nothing has changed.”
“Our beautiful, beloved and bubbly daughter is gone, and this murderer enjoys the blessings of life in prison,” he said. “We heard a ridiculous statement by the murderer, and we need to remember that we have to stop glorifying the people who commit these heinous acts.”
Mr. Montalto said he favored a death sentence in the case.
“We have to, as a society, find a way to punish them to the maximum extent of the law” to try to deter others from committing similar attacks, he said.
Gena and Thomas Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son, Luke, was among Mr. Cruz’s victims, also attended the hearing and said they found Mr. Cruz’s statement to be “self-centered.” They said it had not swayed their belief that he should be executed.
“He got to accomplish his goal of killing people,” Ms. Hoyer said. “And it is my biggest wish that he cannot complete his second goal of avoiding the death penalty.”
Mr. Cruz had a history of mental health and behavior problems, many of them documented by the public school district. Victims’ families recently reached a $25 million settlement with Broward County Public Schools over the shooting.
The money will go to the 17 families who lost loved ones, 16 of those who were injured and 19 survivors who suffer from post-traumatic stress or other conditions, according to David Brill, who represents four of the victims’ families and one of the injured.