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Florida school gunman Cruz to plead guilty to murder, lawyer says


© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Accused Parkland High School shooter Nikolas Cruz sits in the courtroom during a status hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 21, 2019. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Pool via REUT


By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) -Nikolas Cruz will plead guilty to murder in the 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, his lawyer told a judge on Friday.

Cruz’s attorney told a judge his client will plead guilty next week to all charges in what was the deadliest U.S. high school shooting. He faced 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer noted Cruz, now 23, could change his mind before his plea hearing, which she agreed to set for 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

Cruz was 19 and an expelled student at the time of the Feb. 14, 2018 mass murder.

Prosecutors at the Broward State’s Attorney Office have said they will seek the death penalty for Cruz, noting in court documents that the shooting involving an AR-15 rifle was “cold, calculated and premeditated.”

Even if Cruz pleads guilty to the charges and avoids a criminal trial, he would face a penalty phase in which a jury would decide whether he should be sentenced to life in prison or death, said Paula McMahon, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

In Florida, juries determine whether to impose a death sentence. So if prosecutors are not willing to drop the death penalty as part of any plea deal that may be struck with Cruz, then a jury would decide.

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“There have been no plea negotiations with the prosecution. If he pleads guilty, there would still be a penalty phase,” McMahon told Reuters in an email.

In a separate criminal case heard by the judge on Friday, Cruz pleaded guilty to all four charges of assault and battery on a law enforcement officer stemming from a jail attack on Broward County Sheriff’s Sergeant Raymond Beltran in November 2018. Before accepting his plea, she asked him if he understood the impact the assault case could have in the murder case.

“Sir, I need to advise you that the state is going to be using this conviction in this case as evidence of an aggravating factor for purposes of arguing in favor of the death penalty. Do you understand that?” Judge Scherer asked Cruz.

“Yes, Ma’am,” answered Cruz, who stood next to his lawyer after officers brought him to the courtroom from a holding area. Cruz, who wore a blue face mask, a navy blue sweater, white collared shirt and ivory pants, spoke in a strong, clear voice.

The judge deferred sentencing in the assault case, in which Cruz was accused of kicking, hitting and punching the officer as well as attempting to remove his Taser to hit him in the head.

Some of the families of the 14 students and three staff killed and 17 others injured when the troubled former student opened fire have rallied to call for gun control.

Yet a report by a state-appointed commission on the shooting recommended arming teachers, spending more on school security and mental health and training police to be more aggressive when responding to school shootings.

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