The gunman who killed 14 pupils and three staff members at a Parkland, Florida secondary school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said on Friday, bringing some closure to a 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 a sentence of life without parole.
His attorneys told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that he will plead guilty next Wednesday to 17 counts of first-degree murder in the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which is located in south Florida and part of the Miami metropolitan area.
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 defence 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, was among those killed.
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. 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.
In the weeks before the shooting, Cruz began making videos proclaiming he was going to be the “next school shooter of 2018.”
The shooting happened on Valentine’s Day, minutes before the end of the school day. Students had exchanged gifts and many were dressed in red.
Cruz, then 19, arrived at the campus that afternoon in an Uber, assembled his rifle in a bathroom and then opened fire on students and staff members, the smoke from his rifle setting off the fire alarm.
- The Associated Press contributed to this story