Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty Wednesday to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, more than three years after gunning down 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer noted that the murder counts he pleaded guilty to carry a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison with no parole.
Cruz, 23, and his lawyers last week surprised Scherer and prosecutors when they announced he planned to plead guilty to all 34 counts.
In a rushed statement to the court Wednesday, a trembling Cruz apologized for his crimes.
“I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day,” he said. “I have to live with this every day, and it brings me nightmares that I can’t live with myself sometimes but I try to push through.”
The case will now go straight to a penalty phase, to determine if he should face the death penalty. Jury selection is set to begin on Jan. 4.
In a statement, March for Our Lives, a group formed by Parkland student activists to advocate for tighter gun laws, said it had no comment on the gunman and that they would “never dignify him by referring to his name.”
But the group said: “A single guilty plea does not bring closure as long as it is still possible for another person anywhere in this country to be murdered by a gun at school, in a place of worship, or in their very own home.”
David Hogg, a former Stoneman Douglas high school student and March for Our Lives co-founder, said he drew little satisfaction from the convictions against the gunman.
“Ultimately there is no closure, in that our classmates are never coming back, our teachers are never coming back,” Hogg told MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on Wednesday afternoon.
“The closest thing to closure that I know many of my classmates and I can even think of is creating a world, a country, in which our children don’t have to be born into a situation where they live in danger of gun violence.”
In court Wednesday, the gunman answered a series of questions from Scherer, showing that he understood the court proceedings.
Scherer reminded him that in pleading guilty to all charges, his best-case scenario would be to die in prison.
“Life in prison means the term of your life,” she said. “It means you will not come out until you are no longer alive.”
The gunman said he understood.
The convicted killer stood silently, looking down with slumped shoulders, as the details of the shooting were read in court by Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz.
Bringing an abrupt end to the guilt phase of the proceedings was a wise choice by the gunman’s lawyers who want to save their client from execution, veteran Miami defense attorney Phil Reizenstein said.
With no doubt that Cruz pulled the trigger in killing all 17 people that day, enduring a painful trial wouldn’t have helped the defense, according to Reizenstein.
“Why go through that and lose a small advantage we can get of saying he’s remorseful, he’s accepted responsibility, wants to spare the families,” he told NBC South Florida on Wednesday.
“That’s the probably only the advantage they saw, so they realized they had to take it. They did this after 3½ years of preparation, so you can’t say the decision was rushed.”
Tony Montalto, the father of victim Gina Montalto, and other parents of victims founded Stand With Parkland, which demands responsible gun laws, school safety enhancements and greater attention to students’ mental health.
“Today we saw a cold and calculating killer confess to the murder of my daughter Gina and 16 other innocent victims at their school,” he said. “His guilty pleas are the first step in the judicial process but there is no change for my family. Our bright, beautiful, and beloved daughter Gina is gone while her killer still enjoys the blessing of life in prison.”
The trial has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments over witnesses and evidence.
The pleas will come with no conditions and prosecutors still plan to seek the death penalty.
Sentencing for the first-degree murder charges will be decided by a jury. Scherer has said she hopes to start the trial early next year after choosing a jury from thousands of prospects starting in November.
Much of the penalty phase would likely focus on the shooter’s mental condition at the time of the slayings, with prosecutors emphasizing their horrific nature and his intensive planning beforehand.
The families of the 17 people killed, most of the wounded and others traumatized have reached a $25 million settlement with the Broward County school district in a lawsuit that had accused it of negligence, an attorney for the families said earlier this week.
Armed with an AR-15, the gunman arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in an Uber, just before classes were over on Valentine’s Day 2018. He killed 17 people and wounded 17 more in what became the deadliest high school shooting in recent U.S. history.
Then 19, he had been expelled from the school the previous year.
He confessed to the attack, telling investigators he had brought the weapon and several loaded magazines stuffed into a backpack and planned to leave them behind in an effort to blend in with fleeing students, according to a police affidavit.
He was arrested about an hour after the shooting.
He had legally bought the .223-caliber rifle in early 2017 at Sunrise Tactical Supply, a federally licensed gun store in Coral Springs, authorities said.