As expected, Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty Wednesday in a move legal experts say is intended to potentially sway jurors to spare him from execution.
But in a surprise, Cruz also addressed the families of his 17 victims in a brief puzzling speech that didn’t exactly come across as deep remorse. Instead, it angered relatives who sat together in a Broward courtroom to watch him formally accept responsibility for the worst school shooting in Florida history.
Hunched over a lectern, Cruz expressed disdain for drugs, saying “this country would be better if everyone would stop smoking marijuana” and complained that he “can’t even watch TV anymore.” Cruz also suggested that Parkland families had the power to say “whether I live or die” — a comment that his lawyer later explained meant they could ask the state to waive the death penalty.
“I am doing this for you and I do not care if you do not believe me. I love you and I know you don’t believe me,” he said, apparently talking to the victims and the families of the dead. “I have to live with this every day and it brings me nightmares and I can’t live with myself sometimes but I try to push through because I know that’s what you guys would want me to do.”
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February 2018, called it an “absolutely ridiculous statement.”
“He’s doing it for our families?” Montalto told reporters in court after attending Wednesday’s hearing. “If you wanted to do something for our families, you shouldn’t have killed our loved ones.”
“Self-centered. Thinking about himself,” said Tom Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke Hoyer died.
So far, Cruz’s defense team hasn’t spoken publicly about why he decided to plead guilty. The State Attorney’s Office has also declined to comment.
Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder, and 17 counts of attempted murder for wounding. Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer also sentenced him to 26 years in prison for battering a deputy while in jail.
From the day he was first arrested for slaughtering 17 people, Cruz was never going to walk free.
Cruz, a scrawny teen with a history of violent outbursts, was known to staff and students, many of whom identified him as the assault-rifle-wielding killer who methodically gunned down victims inside the 1200 building at Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz was captured on surveillance footage and confessed in detail to the murders — to police, and on self-recorded videos found on his cellphone.
Even Broward’s then-public defender, tasked with defending the teen charged in Florida’s deadliest school shooting, admitted his client was the killer. Cruz was guilty, he said, and would admit it — if only prosecutors waive the death penalty. Broward prosecutors declined the offer.
In Florida, capital juries must first decide whether someone accused of first-degree murder did the crime, in what’s known as the “guilt phase.” If the defendant is convicted, then the same jury reconvenes for the “penalty phase,” and prosecutors highlight “aggravating factors” — such as if a crime was “heinous, atrocious and cruel,” or the killer “knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons.”
Meanwhile, the defense at penalty phase introduces “mitigating” factors — in Cruz’s case, that could include the details of his tumultuous life, including being born to a crack cocaine-addicted biological mother, and growing up in an adopted family, prone to violent outbursts, fixated on guns and killing animals.
“If you’re looking at the chessboard, one of the calculations is the argument of remorse and contrition. That’s the one thing they could argue to the jury. They couldn’t have argued that if they’d gone to the guilt phase,” said Miami defense attorney Philip Reizenstein, who is not involved in the case. “They’re betting on the ability to talk about remorse. It’s obviously a difficult enough of a case, so even a small edge is important.”
The decision to plead guilty will certainly trim the length of the court proceedings. Prosecutors maybe won’t need to call many technical witnesses, or the perfunctory witnesses who are needed to prove evidence was handled properly.
But the State Attorney’s Office will still have to present many gruesome details — like medical examiner evidence about the gunshot wounds — and the emotional toll the shooting took on survivors and relatives of the students who never returned home from school.
“The prosecution can essentially ignore the fact that he’s pleaded guilty,” Reizenstein said of how the state may present its case.
Jury selection for the penalty phase is scheduled to start Jan. 4, the judge told lawyers Wednesday.
Gail Levine, a retired Miami-Dade prosecutor who has put many high-profile murderers on Florida’s Death Row, said the suggestion of remorse may only fly if Cruz actually takes the witness stand. “It’s not as strong if he doesn’t get up on the stand and beg them for forgiveness — and then he opens himself up to cross examination.”
She also pointed to more subtle factors. Had Cruz contested guilt, it would have given the defense an extra opportunity to hammer home evidence of his mental health woes.
And normally, there is a time period between the guilt and penalty phase. Had the guilt phase happened, prosecutors would have presented all the gory details of the bloody rampage in that first portion of the trial — with the jarring details fading, maybe so slightly, in the minds of jurors.
“The government now only has to present its case once, and all those horrible details will be fresh in the jurors’ mind,” Levine said.
The penalty portion of the trial will still be broadcast to the public, and covered by news media from around the world.
Families of the victims — many of whom reached a $25 million settlement with the Broward School District this week over its handling of Cruz — will still have to relive the trauma of that bloody day. That started on Wednesday, as relatives inside the seventh-floor courtroom at Broward’s justice building.
Judge Scherer carefully went over each charge — for each of the 34 victims — explaining to Cruz that he will not leave prison, and could end up executed, by pleading guilty directly to the court.
“If you are sentenced to death, that will not be a reason to revisit your strategy,” Scherer said. “If you are on Death Row, you can’t say, you know what, that wasn’t a good strategy. It will be too late.”
Cruz, wearing a dark blue sweater vest and a blue khakis, hunched over a lectern and quietly said “yes” to her questions.
He also stood feet away from Broward prosecutor Mike Satz, the former longtime Broward state attorney who has been retained to lead the trial team. In excruciating detail, he recounted Cruz’s methodical ambush inside the 1200 building, walking from classroom to classroom, shooting students, then shooting them again as they lay bleeding on the ground.
Victim after victim, Satz recounted how many times each one was shot. Then, Satz said, as students were streaming out of the building, Cruz ditched his weapon and tactical vest. “He blended into the students as he walked away into a residential neighborhood,” Satz said.
Cruz was arrested soon after, three miles away from the campus.
“It was a very difficult day. We had to relive the murder of our beautiful and forever 14-year-old daughter Gina,” said Tony Montalto. ”Mr. Satz had to restate the facts to lay the groundwork for the penalty phase, but it’s never easy to hear.”
For Montalto, like some of the other victims’ families, it was the first time they’d been in the same room as Cruz. The ones who spoke to reporters said they will be returning to witness the penalty phase of the trial.
“Justice for us is we want him dead. We want him forgotten,” Tom Hoyer said. “I don’t ever want to hear this kid’s name again after this is over.”
Gena Hoyer, his wife, said she understood Cruz’s guilty plea was part of a defense strategy. Still, she said, she wasn’t buying his remorse. She said: “We’re hoping for the accountability of the death penalty.”