(The Center Square) – Nikolas Cruz, who gunned down 14 students and three teachers during a 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at a South Florida high school, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and attempted murder Wednesday in a Broward County court.
Cruz, 23, was 19-years-old when he used an AR-15 style rifle to murder students at faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. He faces a minimum sentence of life in prison and remains eligible for the death penalty.
Cruz’s attorneys have repeatedly offered to plead guilty in return for a guaranteed life sentence but state prosecutors have refused to drop their pursuit of the death penalty. By pleading guilty rather than facing a lengthy trial, Cruz will allow a jury to determine his fate next year. Jury selection for his sentencing begins Jan. 4, 2022.
The shooting, which spawned the nationwide “March for Our Lives” movement, was the sixth mass shooting of three-or-more victims in two years in Florida since June 2016, including the massacre of 49 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
The murders had legislative implications. Florida lawmakers were in session when the shooting occurred and adopted Senate Bill 7026, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a quickly-assembled $400 million school safety and gun control bill.
SB 7026 raised the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21; required a 3-day waiting period to buy firearms; banned “bump stocks;” and gave greater authority for law enforcement to seize weapons under “red flag” laws. Florida law already prohibited anyone younger than 21 from buying handguns.
After SB 7026’s adoption, the National Rifle Association sued the state in federal court, arguing banning 18-21 year olds from purchasing firearms was unconstitutional.
U.S. Northern District of Florida Judge Mark Walker issued a 48-page ruling upholding the 2018 law. The NRA has appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
SB 7026 created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Commission which studied policies to improve school safety. The bill earmarked $67 million for a controversial “guardian program” to allow armed faculty and staff. Only 25 school districts had opted to go with it by September 2020.
Several school safety bills have emerged from the commission’s work over the last two years. And the murders’ continue to engender legislation.
In August, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, filed Senate Bill 84, resolving a lawsuit that had accused the Broward County School District of negligence in failing to prevent the attack.
If approved during the 2022 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11, the board will pay $25 million to 52 victims and their families.
But on Wednesday, there was little reflection on state policies, only acknowledgement that one step in the process had been completed.
“My heart is with the Parkland community today,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement. “We must continue to honor the memories of the 17 students and staff members who were killed and recommit ourselves to the common-sense actions needed to address the epidemic of gun violence in the United States and prevent further tragedies.”
Former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, now a first-term Republican Congressman, in a statement expressed no sympathy for Cruz who, in an apology after pleading guilty, said had “to live with” what he did every day and “would do everything in (his) power to help others” if given a second chance.
“Nikolas Cruz took 17 innocent lives. In his plea, he makes himself out to be the victim, saying ‘he has to live with this forever,’” Giménez said. “This day is not about him, but about being one step closer to bringing justice for the families. He deserves the fullest punishment.”