Parkland school shooter plans to plead guilty, but could still face death penalty for killing 17 people

Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who confessed to killing 14 students and three staffers at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, plans to plead guilty to all of the murders in a case that sparked a major US gun control campaign.

Lawyers for Cruz, 23, told Broward County Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Friday that their client will enter his guilty plea next Wednesday. Cruz will plead guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deadliest high school shooting in US history.

Unlike many plea agreements in the US legal system, Cruz’s admission of guilt will come with no concessions from prosecutors, who are still seeking the death penalty against him. During the sentencing phase of the case, a jury will decide whether to recommend giving Cruz the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Cruz pleaded guilty on Friday to four counts in connection with his attack on a jail guard in November 2018, nine months after the shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His lawyers had long offered a guilty plea to the murder charges if he would be sentenced to life in prison, but prosecutors have steadfastly pressed for the death penalty.

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Appearing pale and thin, Cruz wore glasses, a mask, khaki pants and a sweater to Friday’s hearing. He answered, “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” as the judge asked him questions about his competency and his understanding of the charges to which he was pleading.

The case has already been pending for more than three and a half years, partly on delays related to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as arguments over the use of evidence and language at his trial. For instance, Scherer ruled last month that Cruz can’t be called derogatory terms such as ‘animal’ or ‘that thing’, but prosecutors will be able to refer to him as a ‘school shooter’, ‘killer’ or ‘murderer’.

The Parkland shooting, which also left 17 people injured, gave rise to March for Our Lives, a gun control group founded by student activists. While the response to the massacre has focused largely on pressing for tougher gun laws, little has been done about the failures by law enforcement and school administrators to prevent the murders.

For instance, the FBI and Broward County Sheriff’s Department failed to investigate tips about Cruz’s emotional state following his mother’s death in November 2017. The then-sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson, the school’s resource officer, allegedly hid behind a wall after the shooting started rather than entering the building and confronting the gunman.

Cruz’s disciplinary problems when he was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas were so severe that at one point he was prohibited from carrying a backpack because staffers feared that he would use the bag to conceal a weapon. He was expelled in 2017 for disciplinary violations, including fighting.

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He later posted videos online threatening to commit acts of violence, in some cases identifying the Parkland school as his target. In one video, Cruz said he would be “the next school shooter of 2018.” He was arrested about an hour after the attack and admitted to being the shooter.

Parents of the Parkland victims have expressed frustration at the slowness of the legal proceedings in Cruz’s case. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, told the Associated Press on Friday that he wants to see Cruz executed. “Death by lethal injection seems too peaceful to me,” he said. “I’d rather see a hanging in a public square.”

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