The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Will plead guilty to their murders, his lawyers said on Friday, shutting down a South Florida community more than three years after an attack that sparked a national movement for gun control.
The guilty plea would set up a phase of sentence where 23-year-old Nikolas Cruz would fight the death penalty and hope for life without parole.
Cruz’s lawyers told circuit judge Elizabeth Scherer he would 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 unconditionally and prosecutors still plan to seek the death penalty. It will be decided by a jury, but this trial has not been scheduled.
Cruz will also plead guilty to 17 counts of attempted first degree murder. He was not initially present at the hearing, but then entered the Broward County courtroom to plead guilty to assaulting a prison guard nine months after the shooting.
The trial has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments between the prosecution and the defense over evidence and testimony that could be presented to the jury. Some families of the victims had expressed frustration at the delays, but the chairman of the group they formed said he was relieved that the case now seems closer to resolution.
“We just hope the system does it justice,” said Tony Montalto of Stand With Parkland. Her 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the shooting.
In the aftermath of the shooting, student activists from Parkland formed March for Our Lives, a group that rallied hundreds of thousands across the country for tougher gun laws, including a televised march to Washington. Parents also made passionate calls for accountability and policies to end gun violence.
Cruz and his lawyers’ decision to plead guilty came unexpectedly.
The attack crushed the security veneer in Parkland, an upper-middle-class community outside of Fort Lauderdale with little crime. Its educational gem is Stoneman Douglas, a 3,200-student campus that is one of the top-ranked public schools in the state.
Cruz was kicked out about a year before the attack after numerous incidents of unusual behavior and at least one fight. He started posting videos online threatening violence, including at school. It was around this time that he purchased the semi-automatic AR-15 rifle that he would use for shooting.
The shooting took place on Valentine’s Day, a few minutes before the end of the school day.
A state investigation has uncovered numerous security breaches not only in Stoneman Douglas, but in schools across the state. The shooting led to state law that requires all Florida public schools to have an armed guard on campus during school hours.