FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Anguished family members sat just feet away from their loved ones’ killer when the Parkland school shooter pleaded guilty Wednesday to 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Nikolas Cruz offered an apology after entering his plea but gave no explanation for the carnage in a statement that turned into a rambling rant.
“I hate drugs and I believe this country would do better if everyone would stop smoking marijuana and doing these drugs and causing racism and violence out in the streets,” Cruz said in part.
Legal analyst David Bogenschutz, a veteran defense attorney, called the remarks bizarre.
“One would think that in a situation like this where he’s facing 17 counts of death that he may be emotional,” Bogenschutz said. “It doesn’t bode well for that.”
Now that he’s pleaded guilty to the killings, Cruz, 23, faces a penalty phase, scheduled to begin with jury selection in January.
The public defenders representing him will try to convince a jury of 12 that he should spend his life in prison rather than getting the death penalty.
A unanimous decision among the jurors is necessary to recommend the death penalty to Judge Elizabeth Scherer.
Legal experts have said that the guilty plea was likely an effort for Cruz’s defense to show that he has taken accountability for the killings, an argument they can try to make in the penalty phase.
“They believe then that it increases his chances that he would get life as opposed to death,” criminal defense attorney and former Miami-Dade prosecutor Mark Eiglarsh told Local 10 News.
“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.”
Time will tell if Cruz’s statement after his plea will factor into the next phase.
Prosecutor Michael Satz did describe in painstaking detail in the courtroom Wednesday how Cruz carried out the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14, 2018.
Cruz, in his statement, said he gets nightmares about the killings.
“I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day and if I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others,” he said.
Families of the victims called his words self-serving, unwanted and “irrelevant.”
“Quite frankly, we were very surprised to hear him speak and really have no interest in what he said,” said Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter 14-year-old daughter Gina in the school shooting. “If he wanted to do something for our families, then he shouldn’t have killed our loved ones. Let’s just make that clear.”
The families have largely said that Cruz should be punished by death.
“We’re hoping for the death penalty because that’s the best way that he will hopefully actually feel some bit of remorse or some bit of what we had to go through or what our loved ones went through,” said Thomas Hixon, who lost his father Chris, the school’s athletic director and wrestling coach.