Parkland School Shooting Suspect Pleads Guilty to Murdering 17 in Florida Attack, Moving Case Closer to Death Penalty Decision

Victims of the Parkland school shooting (Giffords Courage / Twitter)

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Updated, Oct. 20

The accused perpetrator of the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, pleaded guilty to all counts on Wednesday. The development unfolded in a Broward County courtroom, where the suspect was charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. Fourteen students and three faculty members were killed in the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

During the hearing, which was attended by the families of those killed in the school, the suspect responded “guilty” 34 times as the judge read each charge along with the victims’ names. Judge Elizabeth Scherer asked the suspect if he understood that he faces “a minimum, as a best case scenario, of life in prison,” a reality the man acknowledged.

In a statement to the victims’ families, the suspect removed his face mask and offered an apology.

“I am very sorry for what I did and I have to live with it every day, and if I were to get a second chance I would do everything in my power to try to help others,” he said. “I have to live with this every day and it brings me nightmares and I can’t live with myself sometimes but I try to push through because I know that is what you guys would want me to do.”

While he went onto to say he thought it was the victims’ families who should decide “where I go, and whether I live or die,” the judge reminded him that would be left to a jury. Jury selection in the penalty phase of the trial is set to begin Jan. 4.

The man accused of carrying out the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will plead guilty to killing 17 people, bringing the yearslong case a step closer to its resolution, one that could end with a jury sentencing him to death. 

The development, announced during a Friday morning court hearing, comes more than three and a half years after the Valentine’s Day shooting unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that led to a massive uprising among young people over gun control and a national debate about school safety measures. The 23-year-old man, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, plans to plead guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder during a court hearing Wednesday. 

The suspect, who made a court appearance in plainclothes Friday, pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated battery in a separate incident after he was accused of assaulting a police officer while being held inside a Fort Lauderdale jail nine months after the shooting. 

The tragedy, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, resulted in the deaths of 14 students and three faculty members. On Oct. 19, it was announced that the families of the 17 victims and nearly three dozen others who were wounded or traumatized had reached a $25 million settlement with the Broward County school district. District officials had come under intense scrutiny for their handling of school security and disciplinary issues involving the accused gunman.

His guilty plea in the criminal case comes without an agreement with prosecutors and a jury will ultimately decide his fate. Prosecutors argue the suspect should receive the death penalty while his defense seeks 17 consecutive life sentences. The trial is expected to be held in January. 

The 74 is not naming the suspected gunman in accordance with the “No Notoriety” campaign, an effort to deprive perpetrators of media attention. A growing body of research suggests that perpetrators seek fame for their attacks and that media coverage of mass shootings can inspire copycats

Hunter Pollack, whose 18-year-old sister Meadow was killed in the shooting, tweeted that it’s time for “this monster” to face sentencing. “Our families need justice to be served,” he wrote. “It’s 1,338 days overdue.” 

Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Joaquin was killed in the shooting, told a local television station that the announcement Friday wasn’t a revelation to the victims’ families.

“We all know he is guilty, and finally, he knows he is guilty and will share that,” Oliver said. “That is fine.” 

As people reacted to the news Friday, many survivors and victims’ families sought to move attention toward those who lost their lives in the shooting and away from the suspected perpetrator. 

In a tweet, shooting survivor and co-founder of the youth anti-gun violence group March for Our Lives Ryan Deitsch called on people to honor the lives lost in the attack — and “not their killer.” “Was already under intense ptsd all week, this verdict has worsened my state of being,” he tweeted. “It was bound to happen but [after] so many years, that [high school] building still up while memorials were torn down, breaks my heart.”  

Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, offered a similar sentiment. His only comment on the guilty plea, he tweeted, is “to remember the victims.” 

Giffords, the gun control group co-founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords who was shot in a 2011 assassination attempt, used Twitter to highlight the names of each of those killed: Carmen Schentrup, Aaron Feis, Martin Duque, Scott Beigel, Nicholas Dworet, Gina Montalto, Peter Wang, Alaina Petty, Alyssa Alhadeff, Jaime Guttenberg, Joaquin Oliver, Cara Loughran, Alex Schachter, Chris Hixon, Helena Ramsay, Luke Hoyer and Meadow Pollack. 

Forensic psychologist Jillian Peterson, a criminology professor at Hamline University in Minnesota who built what researchers believe is the largest database on mass shooters ever created, said she was grateful that the Parkland community didn’t have to go through a grueling trial to determine if the suspect was guilty of carrying out an attack that police say he already admitted to committing. Peterson, who previously worked as an investigator on death penalty cases, said that in such instances a guilty plea usually comes after prosecutors and defense attorneys agree on a sentence. 

That’s not the case here, and prosecutors have been unwilling to take the death penalty off the table. 

Among mass shooters who live through their attacks, 12 percent receive the death penalty and about 20 percent get life with or without parole. Ultimately, Peterson said that several factors could play into the suspect’s sentence including his impact on the school community, his past disciplinary record and his own mental health. The perpetrator had a lengthy disciplinary record and was expelled from the Parkland high school a year before the tragedy. Meanwhile, just three months before the shooting, his mother and sole parent died of pneumonia. 

She compared the case to the one against the shooter who killed 12 people at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012. In that case, prosecutors sought the death penalty but the gunman, 24 at the time of the shooting,  pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

“If we have the death penalty and the jurors who are sitting on that jury are williing to implement the death penalty, it’s hard to imagine a crime that is more deserving, with this many victims,” said Peterson, co-founder of The Violence Project, a nonprofit think tank. “That being said, we also know this shooter has a really significant trauma history and mental health history so it’s just hard to know how those two things are going to weigh against each other.” 

Oliver told ABC News that he is glad the death penalty remains on the table. 

“The death penalty that Joaquin received was four shots with an AR-15 in the middle of his school,” Oliver said. “With kids dropping on the floor and bleeding out, screaming. That’s how my son died.” 

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