Nikolas Cruz to Plead Guilty to Parkland School Massacre

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -
parkland schoool shooter
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz cries during jury selection last week in his trial on four criminal counts stemming from his alleged attack on a Broward jail guard in November 2018. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

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 the attack.

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 broadcast march in Washington, D.C. 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. Preparations were being made to begin jury selection within the next few months. He had been set to go on trial next week for the attack on the Broward County jail guard.

Cruz and his lawyers had long offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors had repeatedly rejected that deal, saying the case deserved a death sentence.

Cruz was a longtime, but troubled resident of Parkland. Broward sheriff’s deputies were frequently called to the home in an upscale neighborhood he shared with his widowed mother and younger brother for disturbances, but they said nothing was ever reported that could have led to his arrest. A state commission that investigated the shooting agreed.

Cruz alternated between traditional schools and those for troubled students.

He attended Stoneman Douglas starting in 10th grade, but his troubles remained — at one point, he was prohibited from carrying a backpack to make sure he didn’t carry a weapon. Still, he was allowed to participate on the school’s rifle team.

He 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 semiautomatic rifle he would use in the shooting.

When Cruz’s mother died of pneumonia in 2017, four months before the shooting, he began staying with friends, taking his 10 guns with him.

Someone, worried about his emotional state, called the FBI a month before the shooting to warn agents he might kill people. The information was never forwarded to the agency’s South Florida office and Cruz was never investigated or contacted.

Another acquaintance called the Broward Sheriff’s Office with a similar warning, but when the deputy learned Cruz was then living with a family friend in neighboring Palm Beach County he told the caller to contact that sheriff’s office.

In the weeks before the shooting, Cruz began making videos proclaiming he was going to be the “next school shooter of 2018.”