FORT LOWDERDALE, Florida. On Wednesday, Nicholas Cruz pleaded guilty to the murder of 17 people during riots at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, leaving a jury to decide whether he will be executed for one of the deadliest school shootings in the country.
Relatives of the victims, who sat in the courtroom and watched the hearing via Zoom, shook their heads or burst into tears when Cruz made his pleas and then apologized for his crimes.
“Today we saw a cold and calculating killer confess to killing my daughter Gina and 16 other innocent victims at his school,” said Tony Montalto. “His admission of guilt is the first step in the lawsuit, but nothing has changed for my family. Our bright, beautiful and beloved daughter, Gina, is gone, and her killer is still enjoying the blessings of life in prison. “
The plea will set the stage for a trial in which a 12 jury will determine whether 23-year-old Cruz should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole. Given the prominence of the case, District Judge Elizabeth Scherer plans to test thousands of potential jurors. The selection of the jury is scheduled to begin on 4 January.
Cruz entered his pleas after answering a long list of questions from Scherer aimed at confirming his mental capacity. He was charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the first degree of those wounded in the February 14, 2018 attack at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Fort Lauderdale.
When several of the parents shook their heads, Cruz apologized, saying, “I’m really sorry for what I did. … Sometimes I cannot live with myself. ” He also added that he would like the survivors to determine for themselves whether he is alive or dead.
Anthony Borges, a former Stoneman Douglas student who was shot five times and seriously wounded, told reporters after the hearing that he accepted Cruz’s apology, but noted that it was not up to him to decide the fate of the admitted killer.
“He made the decision to shoot the school,” Borges said. “I am not God to decide whether to kill him or not. This is not my decision. My decision is to become a better person and change the world for every child. I don’t want this to happen to anyone again. It hurts. It hurts. This is very painful. So, I just keep going. That’s all.”
Cruise’s lawyers announced his intention to plead guilty during a hearing last week.
Following requests on Wednesday, former Broward attorney Mike Sats revealed the details of the killings. Investigators said Cruise killed 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day 2018 during a seven-minute rampage through a three-story building in Stoneman Douglas. According to them, he shot victims in the hallways and classrooms with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Cruise had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas a year earlier after a history of threatening, intimidating, unusual and sometimes violent behavior that began in preschool.
The shooting has prompted some Stoneman Douglas students to launch the March for Our Lives movement, which is pushing for tougher gun restrictions at the national level.
Days after the shooting, Cruise’s lawyers offered to convict him in exchange for life imprisonment, saying it would save the community from the emotional turmoil of re-experiencing the assault in court. But Sats turned down the offer, stating that Cruz deserved a death sentence and appointed himself the chief prosecutor. Sats, 79, stepped down as state attorney in January after 44 years, but remains Cruise’s chief prosecutor.
His successor, Harold Pryor, opposes the death penalty but has said he will abide by the law. Like Sats, he never accepted the offer of protection – as an elected official it would have been difficult even in the liberal county of Broward, where there are more than 2 times more Democrats than Republicans.
By pleading guilty to Cruz, his lawyers will be able to argue during the sentencing hearing that he took responsibility for his actions.