The former student who killed 17 people at a South Florida high school in 2018 pleaded guilty Wednesday to 17 counts each of murder and attempted murder, paving the way for a jury to decide whether to sentence him to death or life without parole.

Appearing in Broward County court in a mask and dark-colored shirt, Nikolas Cruz listened as Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer guided him through the charges and potential punishment for the massacre that killed 14 students and three faculty members.

“These are capital felonies, and they’re punishable one of two ways, either life in prison or the death penalty,” Scherer said. “Do you understand that you are facing a minimum, best-case scenario of life in prison?”

“Yes ma’am,” he responded.

Before accepting the plea, Scherer emphasized that Cruz’s decision would be irreversible, even if he ended up on death row. “You will not be able to change your mind,” she told him.

The judge then read the 34 charges and asked how he wished to plead. “Guilty,” Cruz said after each.

The plea by Cruz, 23, came more than 3½ years after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. His change of plea from not guilty was an abrupt reversal in the case. His attorneys had long acknowledged Cruz’s guilt but said he would formally plead guilty only if prosecutors agreed to let him be sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors had refused, calling this the type of case that demanded the death penalty.

The rampage was one of the country’s deadliest school shootings, devastating the community and spurring a nationwide, student-led push for greater gun-control legislation.

Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed, said he was relieved that the case was finally moving toward a conclusion.

“There’s no closure, but we’re one step closer to having this nightmare of a legal process come to an end,” Guttenberg, who attended the hearing in person, said in an interview. “I am thankful that we have this one small step forward to justice and to him paying the ultimate penalty.”

Guttenberg went straight from the hearing to visit his daughter’s gravesite, saying he wanted to spend the day celebrating the young girl who loved dancing and dreamed of becoming a physical therapist. This week, he’s hosting a dance-a-thon fundraiser to raise money for a scholarship in her name and to provide financial support for families affected by gun violence.

“I am a dad who looks at his daughter’s life in memories, who thinks about the promise of what her life should have been because of what she already showed us in 14 years,” Guttenberg said. “And yet my daughter will be forever 14.”

Cruz spoke in the courtroom Wednesday morning, making his first public remarks about the massacre since he was arrested.

“I am very sorry for what I did,” he said during a brief, rambling statement. “I have to live with it every day. … It brings me nightmares, and I can’t live with myself.” Cruz also said he wanted the victims and their relatives to decide his sentence.

Watching the hearing was painful, said Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old freshman at Douglas, was killed in the attack.

Alhadeff said it was difficult to hear the attacker speak and to listen to prosecutors recounting in painful detail what happened Feb. 14, 2018.

“It was really challenging and traumatic,” said Alhadeff, who became a school safety proponent and was elected to the Broward school board after the massacre. “But I know it's necessary in this process, for us to ultimately get to the penalty phase.”

Alhadeff said her family wants Cruz to receive the death penalty. She watched the hearing Wednesday on Zoom, along with other victims’ relatives, some of whom appeared visibly anguished during the proceedings.

“I’m lucky I was not there” in person, she said after it concluded. “It was very hard to control myself once I heard the shooter speak. I just got really enraged and upset.”

Cruz’s plea suggests that his attorneys made “a tactical decision” after looking at the facts and evaluating potential defenses, said George Brauchler, who led the prosecution of the gunman who killed 12 people inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012.

The Aurora prosecution, like Parkland, marked an unusual case in which a mass killer survived to stand trial. Jurors in the Aurora case convicted the gunman in 2015 but said he should be sentenced to life in prison rather than death.

“The only potential out for a mass murderer is mental health,” Brauchle, a former district attorney, said in a telephone interview about the Parkland case.

Cruz’s defense team probably decided a mental health argument would not work for them, Brauchler said. With his guilty pleas, they are instead able to stand in front of the jury to say their client “did something evil” and owned that, hoping it might sway them to spare him a death sentence, Brauchler said.

Prosecutors during the penalty phase will outline what are called “aggravating factors” warranting a death sentence — such as whether he knowingly created a risk of death to many people. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, will offer “mitigating circumstances.” Under Florida law, one such circumstance is whether the defendant was influenced by “extreme mental or emotional disturbance.” Cruz had a history of mental health issues, and one of his attorneys previously called him “severely damaged and broken.”

The Parkland case will be one of the most high-profile death penalty trials in recent memory, and it comes as executions and death sentences continue to dwindle nationwide. In 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 279 death sentences were handed down and 98 executions carried out. By 2019, the center reported, those numbers had plunged to 34 death sentences and 22 executions.

Some states seeking to carry out executions have struggled to obtain drugs for lethal injections, while others have shifted away from the death penalty entirely, citing racial disparities and moral objections, with Virginia this year becoming the latest to abolish it.

Only a handful of states regularly carry out death sentences. Florida is among those ranks. Between 2008 and 2019, Florida carried out at least one execution every year, a streak matched only by Texas over that span.

A day before Cruz’s plea, the families of those whom Cruz killed and dozens whom he injured or traumatized reached a $25 million settlement with the school district, according to a lawyer representing some of the families.

Attorney David Brill said the largest chunk of the settlement with Broward County Public Schools would be split among the families of the 14 students and three faculty members killed. The agreement settles 52 of the 53 negligence lawsuits filed against the school district over the shooting. The settlement includes 16 of the 17 people injured in the attack and 19 suffering from PTSD or other conditions years later.

The 2018 shooting led to fallout for pivotal figures in the case, including then-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was forced out of office, and Scot Peterson, at the time a sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer who did not confront the attacker and was later charged with neglect.

A state commission investigating the shooting found numerous lapses on the part of the Parkland high school as well as responding law enforcement officers, and local and federal authorities have been criticized as failing to act on numerous red flags related to Cruz, including explicit warnings that he could carry out a gun attack at a school.

Cruz, then 19, was arrested after the shooting and indicted on 17 counts of murder in the first degree and 17 counts of attempted murder. With his guilt effectively unchallenged, the main question surrounding the pending trial was whether jurors would think he should be sentenced to death.

In death penalty trials, the penalty phase can be more extensive than sentencing proceedings in other cases. Jurors will hear evidence related to both the killings and Cruz himself during the penalty phase. Cruz can only be sentenced to death if the jury is unanimous.


Before the shooting, Cruz had repeatedly drawn the attention of local, state and federal officials. But the numerous calls to authorities, warnings about him as a potential school shooter and recognition that he planned to buy a gun did not prevent the attack, during which terrified children hid under desks and were gunned down inside classrooms.

Cruz last week also changed his plea in a separate case. He was charged about nine months after the school shooting with assaulting a law enforcement officer working as a guard in his jail. Jury selection had begun this month, but on Friday, Cruz reversed course and pleaded guilty on all counts in that case. Cruz and his defense attorney said he was competent when entering the plea.

After the massacre, Marjory Stoneman Douglas students organized the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of people from around the country demanding action against gun violence. The rally in March 2018 gave rise to a student-led gun-violence-prevention group of the same name with hundreds of chapters around the country.

Timothy Bella contributed to this report.