Prosecutors announced Tuesday they will seek the death penalty against the suspected gunman who killed 17 students and instructors at a South Florida high school last month, undermining a strategy from defense attorneys to avoid a trial that is certain to receive national attention.
Broward County State Atty. Michael Satz filed the formal notice to seek the death penalty against Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder and is being held without bond. Cruz, 19, is scheduled for formal arraignment Wednesday on a 34-count indictment, which includes the murder and attempted murder charges.
Cruz's attorneys have said in recent weeks he would plead guilty if the death penalty was not pursued.
Even so, Satz declined to take the death penalty off the table, listing seven “aggravating factors” in his office's decision to move forward with the death penalty. Those factors, Satz wrote in the filing, include Cruz's prior criminal record, the “heinous, atrocious and cruel” nature of the crime, and the “cold, calculated and premeditated” manner in which it was carried out.
A plea deal, however, could still be reached.
Cruz is alleged to have carried out one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history on Feb. 14, methodically stalking the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and firing into classrooms.
At a hearing last month, Cruz's attorney, Melissa McNeil, said he appeared to be “fully aware of what is going on.” But she said he had a troubled background and little personal support before the attack.
In the weeks before the shooting, the FBI failed to investigate a tip about Cruz.
On Jan. 5, a person close to Cruz contacted the FBI to report that the 19-year-old had posted disturbing messages on social media and had expressed a desire to kill, according to the agency. The FBI said proper “protocols were not followed” in looking into the teenager. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating procedures the FBI takes in fielding tips from callers.
The announcement Tuesday is rare as most mass shooting cases do not go to trial, often because the subject commits suicide after carrying out a rampage.
The most recent mass shooter to stand trial was James Holmes, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing 12 people at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012.
George Brauchler, district attorney for Colorado's 18th Judicial District, made the decision to seek the death penalty against Holmes. He said the decision was made only after he spoke with victims of the massacre.
“I had to take into consideration the victims. That was No. 1 for me. I had a whole mix of views from them — from people wanting the death penalty to others being staunchly against it,” Brauchler said. “At the end of the day, I listened to the victims and made my decision.”
On Tuesday, the reaction here in Parkland was one of relief.
Nick Varias, 21, a junior at Florida State University and a Stoneman Douglas alumni, said he was not surprised that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against Cruz.
“I don't think there's any redemption for him at this point,” he said as he stood outside his former high school gazing at a chain link fence festooned with balloons, ribbons and faded bouquets. “How do you release someone like that back into society?”
Clutching a bouquet of purple carnations, his friend Ashley Garrett, 21, a junior at the University of Central Florida who also graduated from the high school, said she felt the focus should be on the victims. While Garrett is not an advocate of the death penalty, she said, she struggled with cases like Cruz’s.
“The victims are children,” she said, shaking her head.