Armed with a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle, Mr. Cruz, then 19, killed 14 students and three faculty members and injured 17 more people in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. “You’re all going to die,” Mr. Cruz said in one of three videos he recorded on his cellphone before the shooting. Outraged Parkland students helped ignite a national movement of young people against gun violence.
The Parkland case will be the rare instance of a mass shooter who lives to see any sort of trial, since many of them end up dying in their attacks. The white supremacist who killed nine members of a Black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 was tried in federal court, found guilty and sentenced to death. The gunman who killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in state court, was found guilty and sentenced to life.
From the start, Mr. Cruz’s lawyers said he would agree to plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment. But the top prosecutor in Broward County at the time of the attack, Michael J. Satz, said he would pursue the death penalty. Mr. Satz’s term as state attorney has since ended, but he is still leading the case.
Defense lawyers did not discuss the reason for the decision to enter a guilty plea despite the risk of execution, but legal analysts said it could provide advantages. Once a defense lawyer has determined that a guilty verdict is unavoidable, arguing otherwise might only burn good will with jurors, said William N. Nettles, a former United States Attorney in South Carolina.
“In cases like that, it’s often the best course of action to decline to fight a losing battle and instead fight a battle that you might win — and that’s the sentencing battle,” he said.
During sentencing, the defense can present mitigating evidence that would not typically be admissible during the guilt phase, such as background about the defendant’s childhood or “anything they can do to inject to the jury something humanizing,” said George Brauchler, a former district attorney in Colorado who prosecuted the gunman in the Aurora shooting.
“We get to go to a jury and say, ‘Our client did wrong, and he admits he did wrong, but this young man is redeemable at some level, even though he doesn’t deserve to take a free breath again,’” he said.