Nikolas Cruz will plead guilty to the 2018 massacre of 14 students and three staff members at a suburban Florida high school, an attorney acting on his behalf said on Friday.
Attorneys for Cruz told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that he will plead guilty on 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, 23, will also plead guilty to 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder and to attacking a jail guard nine months after the shooting, attorney David Wheeler said in court.
Preparations had been ongoing for what would be the biggest murder trial in Broward County history, and one of the most infamous crimes ever in Florida.
Much of the penalty phase would likely focus on Cruz’s mental condition at the time of the slayings, with prosecutors emphasizing their horrific nature and Cruz’s intensive planning beforehand.
The shooting inspired several students from the school to start a movement to raise awareness of gun violence in the U.S. and push for sensible gun control laws. The students confronted lawmakers about gun reform during town halls, and sparked massive walkouts and peaceful protests at schools across the country.
‘There is very little doubt’
Tony Montalto, president of the Stand With Parkland group that represents the families of the victims, said Thursday night that neither he nor any parent he has spoken to has been informed that Cruz would plead guilty, but he is not surprised. Montalto’s 14-year-old daughter died in the shooting.
“There is very little doubt he murdered my beautiful daughter, Gina, or the 16 other victims. There is very little doubt he shot the other 17 people and terrorized all the other students at the school. We just hope the system gives him justice,” Montalto said.
When asked if he believes Cruz deserves the death penalty, Montalto said, “As a society, we need to disincentivize to the maximum extent possible anyone from attacking our schools, whatever form that takes.”
Cruz’s rampage crushed the veneer of safety in Parkland, an upper-middle-class community outside Fort Lauderdale with little crime. Its educational crown jewel is Stoneman Douglas, a campus of 3,200 students that is one of the top-ranked public schools in the state.
Since preschool, Cruz had been treated for emotional problems and was known by neighbours for torturing animals.
He was expelled about a year before the attack after numerous incidents of unusual behaviour and at least one fight. He began posting photos online of himself with guns — he owned at least 10 — and made videos threatening to commit violence, including at the school. It was around this time that he purchased the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle he would use in the shooting.
In the weeks before the shooting, Cruz began making videos proclaiming he was going to be the “next school shooter of 2018.” Shortly before the massacre, he made one where he said, “Today is the day. Today it all begins. The day of my massacre shall begin.”
School resource officer charged with neglect
During the shooting, sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson, the school’s long-time resource officer, heard the shots but did not enter the building — he drew his gun and hid behind a column and wall, video shows. He told investigators he did not know where the shots were coming from, but they said his radio transmissions show he did.
Peterson has been charged with felony child neglect for allegedly failing to protect the students and perjury for allegedly lying to investigators. He has pleaded not guilty and proclaimed his innocence in interviews. He resigned shortly after the shooting, before he could be fired.
Cruz eventually dropped his rifle and fled, blending in with his victims as police officers arrived and stormed the building. He was captured about an hour later walking through a residential neighbourhood. Later that night, he confessed to detectives.
A state investigation found numerous security lapses not just at Stoneman Douglas but at schools across Florida. The shooting led to a state law that requires all Florida public schools to have an armed guard on campus during class hours.