Florida mass shooter will plead guilty if prosecutors drop the death penalty

The legal team for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz won’t contest his guilt and will instead focus on keeping the troubled teenager off Florida’s Death Row.

Broward’s Public Defender, whose office is representing the teenage gunman, made the unexpected announcement just one day after Cruz was arrested on 17 counts of premeditated murder. The charges could result in execution or life in prison.

“He committed this crime. Everybody saw it. Everybody knows it. He’s admitted it,” Public Defender Howard Finkelstein told the Miami Herald on Friday. “The crime is horrific and beyond words. This is going to come down to one issue — does he live, or does he die?”

Cruz, 19, walked into his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, on Wednesday afternoon, opening fire with an AR-15 rifle. Seventeen people died and 15 others were wounded in the worst school shooting in Florida history.

The emotionally troubled teenager had been transferred out of the school for still undisclosed “disciplinary reasons” and had a long obsession with weapons, posting disturbing photos on his social-media accounts.

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Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. Handout

No trial date has been set, and it’s unclear when Cruz could admit guilt in court. But Finkelstein said Cruz would immediately agree to life in prison if prosecutors waive the death penalty. “We’re willing to plead guilty and let the families and community begin to heal. Nobody sees any benefit from a trial.”

It’s highly unusual for a legal defense team to signal their approach to a case so soon after an arrest, particularly in a high-profile case.

“It is way too early in the investigation to talk about the death penalty,” said Broward State Attorney’s spokeswoman Constance Simmons.

In Cruz’s case, the prosecution’s evidence appears rock solid.

Scores of eyewitnesses — many of whom knew Cruz — saw him striding in the hallways opening fire. Much of the crime is captured on surveillance cameras. After ditching the gun, he was captured within hours of the shooting, after blending in with fleeing students and escaping to a Walmart and a McDonald’s.

And he confessed to the killings, according to a Broward Sheriff’s police report.

Cruz, while having a long history of emotional outbursts, would likely have a tough time proving he was insane at the time of the crime — which would require proving he did not know right from wrong at the time. The reason: Cruz’s plan was methodical and calculated. He brought extra ammunition and fired scores of rounds. He also told detectives that he planned his escape afterward, police said.

For Finkelstein’s office, the key will be showing jurors that Cruz had such a wretched life that he does not deserve to be sentenced to the death penalty.

Cruz, who was adopted as a child along with his brother, had a history of lashing out in his Parkland neighborhood. Police were repeatedly called to his home because of his erratic behavior, neighbors told the media, and he liked to torment animals.

His defense team believes, preliminarily, that he suffered from autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said Finkelstein. And while he had been treated for mental disorder, Cruz had stopped treatments. His adoptive father died over a decade ago, and his mother passed away in November.

Students and parents walk away from the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a mass shooting. Al Diaz Miami Herald

At the time of the shooting, Cruz was living with a friend while attending Cross Creek, a Pompano Beach School for emotionally disturbed youths.

On Friday, the FBI made the stunning admission that agents had been warned by someone close to Cruz that he might pose a violent risk the month before the shooting. But the agency failed to forward the tip to the South Florida field office.

“He should have been on everybody’s radar,” Finkelstein said.

The decision to focus on the death penalty instead of contesting guilt comes as the state recently changed its capital punishment law to conform with a Florida Supreme Court ruling. Unlike in the past, 12 jurors must now agree unanimously to condemn someone to Death Row.

Notably, in 2015, Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes got life in prison after one juror refused to impose death after convicting him of murdering 12 people. Another notorious killer, Arizona’s Jodi Arias, who shot and stabbed her lover in 2008, also got life in prison after two separate juries could not agree unanimously on the death penalty.

All it takes is one juror who doesn’t agree on execution.

“In the end, if he lives or dies, it’s going to come down to one human being,” Finkelstein said.

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