School shooter Nikolas Cruz offers again to plead guilty if prosecutors waive death penalty

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Accused Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz walked into a Broward courtroom Wednesday with his head bowed to face arraignment on charges that he killed 17 people and wounded 17 others during a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Family members of the victim, seated in the second row of the courtroom’s gallery, stifled tears as they got their first look at the young man responsible for the deadly rampage. One woman gasped as she watched Cruz shuffling across the floor, his arms and legs in shackles.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among the dead, glared at Cruz as he was led in and again as he was led out of the courtroom at the end of the hearing.

Cruz’s brother, Zachary, 18, and Rocxanne Deschamps, who took the brothers in after their mother passed away last November, attended. Nikolas Cruz later went to live with a friend’s family in Parkland.

Prosecutors announced on Tuesday that they are seeking the death penalty.

Cruz “stood mute” rather than plead not guilty. Defense lawyer Melisa McNeill repeated an earlier offer and said he would not put up a legal fight if prosecutors would agree to a sentence of life in prison.

“At any time Mr. Cruz is willing to enter a plea of guilty,” she said, “in exchange for a waiver of the death sentence.”

If Cruz is convicted, a jury would have to recommend death unanimously in order for a judge to be able to order an execution.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer entered a not guilty plea on Cruz’s behalf, a legal move that allows the case to move forward with the presumption of innocence even though the defendant doesn’t deny committing the crime.

Scherer was also asked to rule on a motion filed by one of the victims in the case to disqualify the State Attorney’s Office from prosecuting and the Public Defender’s Office from representing Cruz.

Scherer said she would review the motion after determining whether the attorney who filed it, Alex Arreaza, has legal standing to make the demand.

Scherer ordered Cruz to fill out an updated application to determine whether he is financially indigent. Financial records disclosed as part of his late mother’s probate case show he stands to receive $25,000 from a life insurance policy and had more than $12,000 in a bank account, McNeil said. He also appears to have access to 24 shares of Microsoft stock purchased in 2003, although it is not clear whether his brother is entitled to a portion.

The Public Defender’s Office is legally permitted to represent only those defendants who cannot afford a private attorney. If the clerk’s office determines Cruz is not indigent, he may have to hire a private lawyer.

Scherer set a hearing in the case for April 11 to address the indigency questions and another for April 27 to begin preparations for a trial or other resolution of the case.

Zachary Cruz, Deschamps and the family members of the victims left the courtroom after Wednesday’s hearing without commenting.

Tribune News Service
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