FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Nikolas Cruz has pleaded guilty to an attack on a jail guard and plans to do the same in the case of the Parkland school massacre, his attorneys said in court Friday.
Cruz entered his guilty plea Friday morning in the jail battery case that was set to start next week. His change to a guilty plea in the Feb. 14, 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings is scheduled for Wednesday at 9 a.m.
Cruz, 23, faces 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. If the judge accepts a guilty plea in that case, there would then be a penalty phase in the coming months where a 12-person jury would recommend to the judge whether the confessed gunman should be sentenced to life in prison or death.
A status hearing took place Friday morning in Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer’s courtroom.
Scherer requested that Cruz change his plea in the Nov. 13 attack of a Broward Sheriff’s Office jail guard on Friday — if that was his decision — so as to not make jurors unnecessarily come to court next week.
Standing before Scherer, Cruz said he had read the plea forms and agreed to plead guilty to four counts:
- Attempted aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer
- Battery on a law enforcement officer
- Depriving an officer means of protection
- Attempted use of self-defense weapon on a law enforcement officer
Scherer made clear to Cruz that the state would be using his guilty plea in the jail case as an aggravating factor in seeking the death penalty in the Parkland case. She also checked that he was mentally fit to make such a decision.
The pleas come with no conditions and prosecutors still plan to seek the death penalty.
WATCH A REPLAY OF THE GUILTY PLEA:
Criminal defense attorney and former Miami-Dade prosecutor Mark Eiglarsh — who is not involved with this case — said the defense clearly believes entering a guilty plea is Cruz’s best chance of avoiding the death penalty.
“The public defenders who are representing Cruz are doing this for one reason and one reason only — because they believe it’s in Cruz’s best interest,” he said. “They believe then that it increases his chances that he would get life as opposed to death.
“There’s arguments that they could make in the second phase, the penalty phase. They could say, ‘Look, he accepted responsibility for what he did. We didn’t put you through a long trial.’ They also, candidly, are trying to minimize the amount of gore and details, evidencing the abhorrent nature of this offense. And that works to their benefit.”
Friday’s developments come after Cruz and his defense team witnessed some prospective jurors in the battery case last week say they didn‘t think they could be fair or impartial. Some were even brought to tears.
“I think the defense lawyers feared that this could be really problematic if we try to argue that he is not guilty by reason of insanity or argue that he is not guilty for some other reason,” Eiglarsh opined. “They knew that was not going to happen.”
Scherer said she wants to start a 15-day jury selection process for the penalty phase in November. A unanimous decision among the 12-member jury would be needed to recommend the death penalty.
Parents of Parkland victims told Local 10 News they did not know the change of plea was coming ahead of time yet were not surprised. But if it is a tactic by the defense to try to emove the death penalty, at least one father said that wouldn’t be enough.
“Nothing, not even the death penalty, would in any way balance what happened to my son,” said Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son, Joaquin “Guac” Oliver was among the 17 killed at Stoneman Douglas (14 students and three staff members).
Mitch and Annika Dworet, the only victims’ parents to attend Friday’s hearing, said they are relieved the case is finally moving toward closure. Their 17-year-old son Nick died in the shooting while his younger brother Alex was wounded.
Mitch Dworet said he tries hard not to think about the case, saying he wants to focus on their sons. But his wife interjected, “We want justice — it’s time.” For them, that means Cruz’s execution.
“We would like to see him suffer,” she said.
Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed, said he also wants Cruz executed. “Death by lethal injection seems too peaceful to me. I’d rather see a hanging in a public square.”
I have received messages today asking me to comment on the breaking murder trial news. My only comment is to remember the victims. Remember Jaime. Rather than talk about the murderer, please join us on Oct 23rd to celebrate Jaime's life by signing up at https://t.co/nNPMmsRd7R pic.twitter.com/gFuWctxzp2— Fred Guttenberg (@fred_guttenberg) October 15, 2021
Samantha Grady, who was injured in the massacre and lost her best friend, 17-year-old Helena Ramsay, said she is glad Cruz is finally acknowledging the damage he caused.
“I hope we can start the process of truly moving on,” she said. “His punishment should be equal to the lives he has taken, the stress and horrors he has caused in a whole community, a whole state.”
More families are expected to show up for next week’s hearing and possibly give impact statements before he is sentenced.
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, released a statement about the impending change of plea, saying:
“I am relieved and happy that the gunman in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting will plead guilty on all counts. He needs to take responsibility for the massacre that killed 17 precious lives and injured 17 others. Their families’ lives will never be the same and neither will this community. Although nothing and no one can ever make up for the loss of 17 lives, this is a step toward justice for the families and our school community.”
Spoke with NSU Law Professor Mark Dobson about the #penaltyphase of a #deathpenalty trial. “In the penalty phase we get into the character of the accused,” said Dobson, “It really comes down to the question of does this person deserve life or does this person deserve death?” pic.twitter.com/9yw580lgVa— Christina Boomer Vazquez (@CBoomerVazquez) October 15, 2021