Tearful Parkland families react to shooter's guilty pleas: 'There's not going to be any closure'
During an incredibly emotional Wednesday morning in court, victims' families watched as the confessed Parkland shooter changed his plea in the capital case to guilty of all 34 charges.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer read aloud to the courtroom each of the 34 charges the confessed gunman faces related to the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Before she did, she stressed making sure Nikolas Cruz, 23, understood what he was giving up and what his options are: either the death penalty or life in prison.
"Do you understand that life in prison means the term of your life — it means you will not come out until you are no longer alive, do you understand?" she asked.
"Yes ma'am," he said.
He pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first degree murder.
Former Broward State Attorney Mike Satz has continued to prosecute this case. During the hearing, he read into the court record a very detailed description of the shooter's actions on Feb. 14, 2018.
"Upon entering the east doors of the 1200 building, Nicholas Cruz turned right and walked into the east stairwell of the 1200 building. He then proceeded to take out his rifle from the rifle bag and loaded with one of the magazines as the defendant was loading the magazine into his rifle. A student walked into the east stairwell and the defendant said to him, "You better get out of here. Something bad is about to happen." The defendant then entered the stair the hallway at approximately 2:21:33, and he fired his rifle at four students who were in the hallway," said Satz said, in part. He went on to detail the chronology of each person shot.
The judge, as well as each of the victims family members in attendance, and even some media members got choked up during the recap.
Then, the defendant asked to make a statement. He spoke directly to the families sitting in the courtroom:
"I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day. And that if I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others. And I am doing this for you, and I do not care if you do not believe me and I love you and I know you don't believe me, but I have to live with this every day and it brings me nightmares. And I can't live with myself sometimes, but I try to push through because I know that's what you guys would want me to do. I hate drugs, and I believe this country would do better if everyone would stop smoking marijuana and doing all these drugs and causing racism and violence out in the streets. I'm sorry and I can't even watch TV anymore, and I'm trying my best to maintain my composure. And I just want you to know I'm really sorry, and I hope you give me a chance to try to help others. I believe it's your decision to decide where I go and whether I live or die. Not the jury, I believe, is your decision. I'm sorry."
A jury will have to decide if Cruz does get life in prison or the death penalty. The jury selection is slated to begin on Jan. 4, 2022.
Many of the different family members hugged each other while they cried in the courtroom — and looked shocked that the confessed gunman spoke.
Tony Montalto's 14 year-old daughter, Gina, was killed in the shooting.
"If you wanted to do something for our families you shouldn't have killed our loved ones," said Montalto, about the defendant's statement.
He said being in the room with the confessed gunman was, "probably the most uncomfortable thing — well, second most uncomfortable thing — we've ever had to do. The first one would be hugging our daughter's lifeless body."
Tom and Gena Hoyer spoke out after the hearing.
"My son Luke Hoyer was 15 and we miss him dearly," said Gena Hoyer. "Luke was my third child. He was my surprise baby — and I always used to say, because he was so funny and cute, we would laugh and I'd go 'what would we ever do without him?' He wasn't planned. And now I have to live those words. I do have to live my life without him."
"When [Cruz] said he wanted to speak that was really an ugly surprise for us," said Tom Hoyer. "Because, there's nothing he can say that's going to change anything that he did. That was hard ... who knows, maybe someday we can find room in our heart to forgive him but that's not the same thing as extending mercy. And I don't think this killer deserves any mercy. So I think whatever happens to him happens but it's something we live with for the rest of our lives. There's not going to be any closure."
Cruz was also sentenced to 26 years Wednesday for the four charges related to assault on a law enforcement officer, which he committed after he went to jail for the shooting.
The next hearing, on Oct. 26, will further detail the next steps as his homicide case now moves straight to the second phase of a death penalty trial — the penalty phase.
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