(AP) — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Nikolas Cruz pled guilty Wednesday to killing 17 people during a shooting spree at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, leaving a jury to determine whether he will be executed for one of the country’s deadliest school shootings.
As Cruz filed his pleas and subsequently apologised for his crimes, relatives of the victims who were in the courtroom and watched the proceedings through Zoom burst into tears and joined hands across families.
“Today, we witnessed a cold and calculated criminal confess to the murder of my daughter Gina and 16 other innocent victims at their school,” Tony Montalto stated. Nikolas Cruz shot his 14-year-old daughter many times at close range outside her school. “His guilty pleas are the first step in the legal procedure, but my family’s situation has not changed.” Gina, our bright, beautiful, and adored daughter, is no longer with us, while her assailant continues to enjoy the benefit of life in jail.”
The guilty pleas will pave the way for a penalty trial in which 12 jurors will decide whether Cruz, 23, should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of release. Because of the high profile of the case, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer intends to examine hundreds of potential jurors. Jury selection is set to begin on January 4.
Cruz filed his pleas after completing a series of questions from Scherer designed to determine his mental competence. He was charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder for those injured in the Feb. 14, 2018, incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, just outside Fort Lauderdale.
Nikolas Cruz apologized, stating, “I’m extremely sorry for what I did….” as many parents shook their heads. “Sometimes I can’t live with myself.” He also stated that he wanted it was up to the survivors to decide whether or not he lived.
As they exited the courthouse, parents laughed at Cruz’s remarks, claiming it was self-serving and geared at garnering undeserved pity. Gena Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke was killed in the shooting, regarded it as part of a defense strategy aimed at “keeping a violent, terrible person off death row.”
“A wonderful young guy with a life ahead of him, and the person you saw in there today chose to end his life,” she said of her son. He does not deserve to be imprisoned for the rest of his life.”
After the hearing, Anthony Borges, a former Stoneman Douglas student who was shot five times and seriously injured, told reporters that he accepted Cruz’s apology but that it was not up to him to decide the destiny of the convicted killer.
“He decided to shoot the school,” Borges explained. “I am not God to decide whether or not to murder him.” That is not my choice. My decision is to be a better person and to make the world a better place for all children. I never want this to happen to anyone else. It stings. It stings. It is really painful. As a result, I’m just going to keep going. That’s all.”
During a hearing last week, Cruz’s counsel revealed his desire to plead guilty.
Former Broward State Attorney Mike Satz recalled the circumstances of the killings following the pleas on Wednesday. Investigators say Nikolas Cruz murdered 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day 2018 during a seven-minute rampage across a three-story building at Stoneman Douglas. He allegedly shot victims in the corridors and classrooms with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, returning to the injured and killing them with more bullets. Cruz had been dismissed from Stoneman Douglas a year before due to a history of threatening, frightening, strange, and occasionally violent conduct dating back to preschool.
After Satz concluded, the judge had to pause for a few seconds before continuing to speak, her voice cracking.
Following the shootings, several Stoneman Douglas students organized the March for Our Lives organization, which advocates for stricter gun laws across the country.
Cruz’s defenders have proposed to have him plead guilty in return for a life sentence since days after the massacre, arguing that doing so would save the community the emotional agony of repeating the incident at trial. Satz, however, turned down the offer, claiming that Cruz deserved the death penalty and appointing himself as the main prosecutor. Satz, 79, retired as state attorney after 44 years in January, but he remains Cruz’s primary prosecutor.
Harold Pryor, his successor, is opposed to the death penalty but has stated that he would obey the law. He, like Satz, declined the defense offer – as an elected official, that would have been tough, even in liberal Broward County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one.
Cruz’s counsel will be able to argue during the punishment hearing that he accepted responsibility for his conduct if he pleads guilty.
Prosecutors will submit evidence of the shooting, including security footage, which apparently depicts several of the deaths in gruesome detail, as they would in any other trial. They will also be able to provide evidence that Cruz had planned the assault for a long time and made threats via smartphone videos. There will be evidence from kids and instructors who were in the building, some of whom were injured.
Prosecutors will also offer testimony from the victims’ parents and spouses to show the impact the killings have had on their families and the community.
The defense will then present mitigating evidence, which will most likely include testimony about Cruz’s life, such as his long history of mental and emotional instability, the death of his father when he was five, and the death of his mother four months before the shootings, when he was 19 years old.
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