Nikolas Cruz plans to plead guilty Wednesday to 17 murder counts in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, his lawyers said Friday.
Cruz also plans to plead guilty to 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder in connection with the deadliest high school shooting in recent U.S. history.
The pleas will come with no conditions and prosecutors still plan to seek the death penalty. That will be decided by a jury.
The shooting trial has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments over witnesses and evidence.
Prosecutors seemed to be blindsided by the declaration of Cruz's intentions during an abruptly scheduled hearing on Friday.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, too, seemed confused by the purpose of the hearing. "I'm going to leave it up to you to let me know what's going on because apparently I'm the last to know here," she told defense attorneys at the start of the hearing.
When they explained Cruz planned to plead guilty in the shooting and also charges that he attacked a Broward County Jail guard nine months later, Scherer called for Cruz, who was not in the courtroom, to be brought there.
He appeared, wearing a black sweater, khakis, glasses and a mask. After answering routine questions with "yes, ma'am" and "no ma'am," Cruz pleaded guilty to all four counts related to the guard attack, including attempted aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer.
He also said he has not been on medication for about a year and had been told previously that he suffered from anxiety and depression but had not been formally diagnosed, and was mentally fit to plead guilty.
Jury selection in that trial began earlier this month.
Scherer explained that prosecutors can argue that the conviction is an aggravating factor when they seek his execution during the penalty phase of his murder trial if convicted. Cruz said he understood.
Armed with an AR-15, he gunned down 14 students and three staff members, and wounded 17 others. Then 19, Cruz had been expelled from the school the previous year.
Cruz confessed to the attack, telling investigators he had brought the weapon and several loaded magazines stuffed into a backpack and planned to leave them behind in an effort to blend in with fleeing students, according to a police affidavit.
He was arrested about an hour after the shooting.
Cruz had legally bought the .223-caliber rifle in early 2017 at Sunrise Tactical Supply, a federally licensed gun store in Coral Springs, authorities said.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Parkland student activists formed March for Our Lives, a group that rallied hundreds of thousands around the country for tighter gun laws. In addition to a nationally televised march in Washington, D.C., parents also made impassioned pleas for accountability and policies aimed at halting gun violence.
Meanwhile, Tony Montalto, the father of victim Gina Montalto, and other parents of victims founded Stand With Parkland, which demands responsible gun laws, school safety enhancements and greater attention to students' mental health.
"School shootings are a systemic and pervasive issue facing our country. As a society we should demand the perpetrators of these horrific acts be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Montalto said in a statement Friday.
"Everyday my family must deal with the devastation caused by the murder of our beloved daughter Gina. On days like today we also have to relive the tragedy that took her from us," he said. "Sadly, nothing will bring back Gina or the 16 other wonderful souls that died at the hands of this murderer but all Americans must come together and do everything in our power to ensure that not one more family has to deal with these tragedies in the future."
In a statement, March for Our Lives said it had no comment on Cruz but said: "A single guilty plea does not bring closure as long as it is still possible for another person anywhere in this country to be murdered by a gun at school, in a place of worship, or in their very own home."
"It has been nearly four years since the shooting. We are appalled and disgusted that policymakers continue to waffle and play games, rather than do what needs to be done to prevent any more gun deaths," the statement said. "We are not at peace, we are as angry and determined as ever."
Cruz's attorneys have repeatedly offered to have him plead guilty in return for a guaranteed sentence of life in prison, but prosecutors have refused to drop their pursuit of the death penalty. By pleading guilty, Cruz avoids going to trial, but a jury will still decide his fate in the penalty phase.
One of his attorneys asked Scherer Friday if sentencing on the attempted murder charges could happen Wednesday when Cruz pleads guilty. She said that was unlikely to happen.
Sentencing for the first-degree murder charges will be decided by a jury. Scherer said she hopes to start the trial in January after choosing a jury from thousands of prospects starting in November.
Much of the penalty phase would likely focus on Cruz’s mental condition at the time of the slayings, with prosecutors emphasizing their horrific nature and Cruz’s intensive planning beforehand.