The 19-year-old charged with carrying out the massacre in a Parkland, Fla., high school appeared in court Wednesday, one month after the shooting rampage killed 17 people and injured as many.
The arraignment occurred against the backdrop of widespread student rallies against gun violence nationwide, and it came a day after prosecutors said they would seek a death sentence for Nikolas Cruz, who police say returned to his former school on Feb. 14 and fired round after round at students and faculty alike.
Cruz has made brief court appearances since the massacre, but his arraignment Wednesday came as the case has shifted in recent days, with a grand jury handing down a 34-count indictment last week and prosecutors announcing their decision on the death penalty this week.
The fallout from the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School continued to reverberate across the country, with students at thousands of schools walking out of class Wednesday morning to mark one month since the shooting. Most of the walkouts were scheduled to last for 17 minutes in a symbolic tribute to the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas.
The shooting rampage has also prompted several investigations into how officials handled warnings about Cruz beforehand and how they reacted to the shooting itself. Local, state and federal authorities are looking into how the FBI and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office responded to repeated warnings about Cruz’s potential for carrying out a school shooting; whether multiple sheriff’s deputies responding to the shooting remained outside the school, as officers from a nearby city have alleged; and the precise nature of all the interactions Cruz had with authorities.
Cruz was brought into the hearing Wednesday afternoon by a phalanx of officers who stood around him while he stared down at his shackled hands. During the arraignment, some of the people gathered in the courtroom wore shirts and pins honoring the victims of the massacre. After the hearing ended and Cruz was led out, one of the people watching the hearing could be seen crying into a tissue and shaking her head.
The arraignment followed on the heels of Cruz’s attorneys — who have acknowledged his guilt — withdrawing a not-guilty plea in court and instead saying their client intends to “stand mute” in response to the charges. Last week, Cruz made a brief court appearance, during which he did not speak and instead stared down at his hands while a judge again denied him bond.
In court on Wednesday, Cruz’s attorneys offered again to have him plead guilty in exchange for 34 consecutive life sentences without parole, repeating something they have said since the days after the shooting.
Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender, has told The Washington Post that they did not want to have Cruz plead not guilty because it “just seemed wrong in this case.” But they also did not want to submit a guilty plea while the death penalty remained a possibility, he said. Finkelstein has said it would be wrong to execute Cruz when officials missed so many red flags leading up to the shooting, which “should never have happened.”
Prosecutors initially declined to say whether they would accept Finkelstein’s offer, though Michael J. Satz, the state attorney for Broward County, gave a considerable hint days after the massacre by saying it was “the type of case the death penalty was designed for.”
On Tuesday, Satz’s office announced its decision to seek a death sentence and cited what it said were several aggravating factors, including that the killings were carried out “in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner.” Finkelstein said his team still remains ready to have Cruz plead guilty on all counts in exchange for life sentences.
Cruz has been largely isolated since the shooting, according to jail records made public by the Broward County sheriff’s office last week. He has been kept away from other inmates for his own safety, the records said, and most of his interactions with other people have been with visiting attorneys or the jail staff members monitoring him.