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Nikolas Cruz pleads guilty to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder in the Parkland school shootings on Wednesday. He's seen here sitting at the defense table in the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 6. [Amy Beth Bennett  / Sun Sentinel/ TNS/ Getty Images]
Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder in the Parkland school shootings on Wednesday. He's seen here sitting at the defense table in the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 6.

Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing 17 people — 14 students and three staff members — at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., avoiding a trial but setting up a fight over his punishment for the 2018 attack.

Cruz's defense team is hoping to avoid the death sentence that prosecutors are seeking.

Cruz, 23, faced 17 charges of first-degree murder and an additional 17 charges of attempted murder. He had initially pleaded not guilty to all of the crimes, but his attorneys recently said they would not contest his guilt. Instead, the group of public defenders who represent Cruz have asked the court to sentence him to 17 life sentences.

In court Wednesday, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer read each murder victim's name aloud in court before asking Cruz how he wished to plead.

"Guilty," Cruz replied 17 times.

The long-running case will next head to the sentencing phase of the trial, which will be presented before a jury. In that part of the proceedings, jurors will hear witness testimony and review evidence.

Jury selection for the sentencing phase will begin on Jan. 4 of 2022.

The court hearing brought emotional moments

After his plea was accepted, Cruz apologized for his actions, telling the victims' families that he now wants to help other people.

"I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day," he said, adding that he regularly has nightmares. "I am doing this for you, and I do not care if you don't believe me. And I love you, and I know you don't believe me."

Cruz spoke moments after prosecutors entered a chilling account of the shootings into the record. Lead prosecutor Michael Satz described Cruz's actions on Valentine's Day in 2018, when he brought an AR-15 style rifle to the school he formerly attended and began firing at students in hallways and classrooms.

Satz laid out the tragic and horrifying details of how each person died or was injured, including victims' ages and where they were in the school building when they were shot — many of them repeatedly. On a Zoom videoconference from the courthouse, relatives of the victims could be seen weeping.

The judge asked Cruz about his mindset and the plea strategy

At the start of Wednesday's court session, Scherer addressed Cruz directly to establish his competency and ability to understand the proceedings. Cruz affirmed that he understood what was happening. As for his mental state, he acknowledged that he has previously been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

Scherer then discussed the charges against Cruz, explaining that he faces two options for punishment: life in prison or a death sentence. Under Florida law, life sentences do not provide for parole, she told the defendant.

When the judge asked Cruz if he understands that he faces a "minimum best-case scenario of life in prison," he said that he does.

"This is what we refer to as a strategy decision," Scherer said. She later asked Cruz if he believes it's in his best interest to waive his right to a jury trial and acknowledge guilt.

"Yes ma'am," Cruz replied.

Cruz recorded a video before the attack

The gunman was arrested shortly after the killings, and his responsibility for the heinous crime became a foregone conclusion after a video emerged in which he discussed his plans and his state of mind, in footage recorded shortly before the killings.

"With the power of my AR, you will know who I am," Cruz said, referring to his rifle. In one segment, he stated: "My life is nothing and meaningless. I live a lone life. I live in seclusion and solitude. I hate everyone and everything."

The Parkland massacre rocked the U.S. in 2018 and led to a new push for more effective gun control laws as victims and families who lost loved ones urged lawmakers to act to halt gun violence — particularly the school shootings that have devastated numerous U.S. communities.

Victims of the 2018 shooting recently agreed to a $25 million settlement with the Broward County school district, resolving a lawsuit that had accused the district of negligence in failing to prevent the attack. The money will go to 52 victims and their families, with the largest sums going to the relatives of people who died.

In the years before the attack, Cruz was "the subject of dozens of 911 calls and at least two separate tips to the FBI," as NPR reported in 2018.

The 17 people who died in the attack are:
Alyssa Alhadeff, 14
Scott Beigel, 35
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Aaron Feis, 37
Jaime Guttenberg, 14
Chris Hixon, 49
Luke Hoyer, 15
Cara Loughran, 14
Gina Montalto, 14
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Alaina Petty, 14
Meadow Pollack, 18
Helena Ramsay, 17
Alex Schachter, 14
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Peter Wang, 15

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.