The gunman who killed 17 people at a Florida high school in 2018 pleaded guilty Wednesday to as many first-degree murder charges, and the legal question in the case now turns to whether he will be sentenced to death.
Attorneys for Nikolas Cruz, 23, have said they will argue against the death penalty for their client. A sentencing trial is expected in the coming months.
At a hearing Wednesday, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer asked Cruz questions to gauge his mental competency and explained how entering a guilty plea would mean waiving certain constitutional rights. She said each guilty plea could be used as an aggravating factor in the sentencing for each other charge.
Scherer then asked Cruz how he pleaded for each of the 17 murder counts, naming the students and teachers Cruz killed, plus 17 counts of attempted first degree murder, naming the wounded as well.
Each murder charge carries a minimum of life in prison without parole, and the attempted murder charges carries either 20 or 25 years as minimums.
Cruz briefly addressed the court after entering the plea, saying he was sorry for what he did. "I am doing this for you, and I do not care if you do not believe me, and I love you," he said.
Family members of the victims looked on in the courtroom, wiping away tears as prosecutors provided a narrative of how the shooting unfolded.
Scherer also sentenced Cruz to nearly 26 years in prison Wednesday on charges stemming from an attack on a jail guard nine months after the shooting.
Cruz's guilty plea in the murder case was unexpected; there were plans to begin jury selection for a trial in the next few months. His lawyers had offered the guilty pleas with hopes the death penalty would be dropped, but prosecutors have continued to seek it.
Armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, Cruz, then 19, shot 14 students and three teachers to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine's Day more than three years ago.
The rampage, the deadliest at a high school in U.S. history, sparked national debate around guns and school safety. A group of students who survived the shooting organized a massive protest in Washington weeks later to demand changes to the nation's gun laws.
Cruz, a former student with a violent history, also wounded 17 as he fired into classrooms and in hallways and moved up the three-story building. After the shooting, he slipped away in the group of students fleeing the building, police said. He was arrested on a nearby street after getting a drink at a Subway shop.
Hearings in the death penalty trial are scheduled for November and December, and testimony could begin in January. A jury will decide whether Cruz should be sentenced to death.
Cruz pleaded guilty last week to attacking the jail guard. He told Scherer during that plea hearing he understood that prosecutors can use that conviction as an aggravating factor when they argue for his execution.
Legal proceedings in the school shooting case had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and arguments between the defense and prosecution over evidence.
After news of Cruz's expected guilty pleas broke, Samantha Grady, who was injured in the massacre and lost her best friend, 17-year-old Helena Ramsay, said she was glad Cruz acknowledged the damage he caused.
“I hope we can start the process of truly moving on,” she said. “His punishment should be equal to the lives he has taken, the stress and horrors he has caused in a whole community, a whole state.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz pleads guilty in 2018 school massacre