FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Nikolas Cruz is scheduled to plead guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder Wednesday for the 2018 shooting massacre at a Florida high school, as his attorneys turn their focus to saving him from a death sentence.
Cruz, 23, will appear before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who will ask him a lengthy list of questions to gauge his mental competency. Scherer will then ask him one by one how he pleads to each killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and to the 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder for those who were wounded.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime died in the shooting, said he visited her grave this week to ask her for the strength to get through Wednesday’s hearing.
“She was the toughest, wisest person I ever knew,” he said. “My daughter always fought for what was right. My daughter despised bullies and would put herself in the middle of someone being bullied to make it stop.”
The guilty pleas will set the stage for a penalty trial in which 12 jurors will determine whether Cruz should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. Given the case’s notoriety, Scherer plans to screen thousands of prospective jurors. Hearings are scheduled throughout November and December, with a goal to start testimony in January.
Cruz killed the 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day 2018 during a seven-minute rampage through a three-story building at Stoneman Douglas, investigators said. They said he shot victims in the hallways and in classrooms with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. Cruz had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas a year earlier after a history of threatening, frightening, unusual and sometimes violent behavior that dated back to preschool.
The shootings caused some Stoneman Douglas students to launch the March for Our Lives movement, which pushes for stronger gun restrictions nationally.
Since days after the shooting, Cruz’s attorneys had offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, saying that would spare the community the emotional turmoil of reliving the attack at trial. But longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz rejected the offer, saying Cruz deserved a death sentence, and appointed himself lead prosecutor. Satz, 79, stepped down as state attorney in January after 44 years, but remains Cruz’s chief prosecutor.
His successor, Harold Pryor, is opposed to the death penalty but has said he will follow the law. Like Satz, he never accepted the defense offer — as an elected official, that would have been difficult, even in liberal Broward County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
By having Cruz plead guilty, his attorneys will be able to argue during the penalty hearing that he took responsibility for his actions.