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. The judge explained that each guilty plea could serve as an aggravating factor for the sentencing of each 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. Cruz said that he was doing all this to help you.

Families of victims watched as the prosecution told their story. They wiped away the tears and looked on, wiping away the sorrow.

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. While his attorneys had offered to plead guilty in hopes that the death penalty would not be applied, the prosecutors are still seeking 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.

This massacre, which was the most deadly at a U.S. high school, ignited national discussion about guns and safety in schools. A small group of survivors organized a protest in Washington several weeks later to call for changes to our gun laws.

Cruz was a former student who had a history of violence and also injured 17 others as he shot into classrooms, hallways, and then moved up three stories. Police said that Cruz fled with the rest of the students as they tried to flee the building following the shooting. After he had a Subway drink, he was taken to a nearby police station.

The hearings for the trial against death penalty are set for December and November. Testimony could start in January. Cruz’s sentence will be decided by the jury.

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

Source: USAToday.com

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