Surrounded by at least 20 deputies and shackled at his wrists and ankles, Nikolas Cruz appeared in a Broward County courtroom on Wednesday to be formally charged in a school massacre he has already confessed to carrying out.
He didn’t enter a plea but the judge, for procedural reasons, did it for him: Not guilty.
The arraignment of Cruz comes exactly one month after he walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle on students and staff at the Parkland school he once attended. A Broward grand jury last week indicted him 17 first-degree murder and 17 first-degree attempted murder charges.
Unlike most defendants in criminal cases, Cruz, 19, did not enter a plea himself and, in fact, did not speak during the brief hearing, keeping his head down throughout.
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Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill told Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer that Cruz “stands mute” to the charges. Hoping to convince a jury to spare his life, his legal team is planning to focus their defense on Cruz’s long history of mental illness, emotional and violent outbursts and the recent death of his mother. Broward Public Defender Howard Finklestein has repeatedly said his goal is to keep Cruz off of Florida’s Death Row.
Scherer ordered the not guilty plea entered for Cruz. The judge also asked for more information on Cruz’s finances to determine whether he can afford his own private attorney, rather than be represented by the taxpayer-funded Public Defender’s Office. She set a hearing on his financial status for April 11. A murder trial, on the current schedule, could start as early as the first week in May.
Cruz’s horrifying act of violence sparked a wave of student activism, renewed political tension over gun control and even forced the normally pro-firearm friendly Florida Legislature to pass a law tightening acess to the weapons.
Armed with plenty of eye witnesses who knew the shooter, video surveillance and a confession, prosecutors have plenty of evidence to convict Cruz of the shooting.