The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Parkland, Florida, high school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said Friday, bringing some closure to a south Florida community more than three years after an attack that sparked a nationwide movement for gun control.
The guilty plea would set up a penalty phase where Nikolas Cruz, 23, would be fighting against the death penalty and hoping for life without parole.
Attorneys for Cruz told circuit judge Elizabeth Scherer that he will plead guilty Wednesday to 17 counts of first-degree murder in the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. The pleas will come with no conditions and prosecutors still plan to seek the death penalty. That will be decided by a jury, but that trial has not been scheduled.
Cruz will also plead guilty to 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder. He was not initially present during the hearing, but later entered the Broward county courtroom to plead guilty to attacking a jail guard nine months after the shooting.
The trial has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments between the prosecution and defense over what evidence and testimony could be presented to the jury. Some victims’ families had expressed frustration over the delays, but the president of the group they formed expressed relief that the case now seems closer to resolution.
“We just hope the system gives him justice,” said Tony Montalto of Stand With Parkland. His 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the shooting.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Parkland student activists formed March for Our Lives, a group that rallied hundreds of thousands around the country for tighter gun laws, including a nationally televised march in Washington. Parents also made impassioned pleas for accountability and policies aimed at halting gun violence.
The decision by Cruz and his attorneys to plead guilty came unexpectedly.
The attack crushed the veneer of safety in Parkland, an upper-middle-class community outside Fort Lauderdale with little crime. Its educational crown jewel is Stoneman Douglas, a campus of 3,200 students that is one of the top-ranked public schools in the state.
Cruz was expelled about a year before the attack after numerous incidents of unusual behavior and at least one fight. He began posting videos online in which he threatened to commit violence, including at the school. It was about this time he purchased the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he would use in the shooting.
The shooting happened on Valentine’s Day, minutes before the end of the school day.
A state investigation found numerous security lapses not just at Stoneman Douglas but at schools statewide. The shooting led to a state law that requires all Florida public schools to have an armed guard on campus during class hours.