WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Nikolas Cruz is expected to plead guilty Wednesday to the Parkland school massacre that killed 17 people on Valentine's Day in 2018, but the abrupt change of position has many outside the legal community trying to make sense of it all.
WPTV spoke with criminal defense attorney Michelle Suskauer and former Palm Beach County prosecutor Doug Rudman on Tuesday to preview what to expect in the courtroom and explain what a guilty plea means for both sides.
Cruz, 23, was about to stand trial for the 2018 assault on a jail guard when he pleaded guilty to the crime Friday.
Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer listened as Cruz stood before her and pleaded guilty to all four counts, waiving his right to a trial.
It was during the same hearing that Cruz's attorney announced his client's intention to change his plea to guilty on all 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Suskauer, a defense attorney with Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein in West Palm Beach, said the decision was surprising.
"It was a surprise," Suskauer said. "Because, normally, from the defense point of view, you're going to, you know, want to see if you can gain something by entering a guilty plea. … But that's not what happened here."
The state has been adamant about seeking the death penalty, while Cruz's lawyers had long offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
As it stands now, the death penalty is still on the table.
'Anything … to save his life'
By pleading guilty, Cruz skips directly to the penalty phase, bypassing what was expected to be a lengthy and emotional trial.
"And maybe that was the benefit," Suskauer said. "We're not going to make the jury, you know, absolutely hate him even more by going through all this and making the jury go through all this."
Instead, a 12-person jury will be asked to decide on whether Cruz should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or be sentenced to die for his crime.
The strategy for the defense, Suskauer said, will be to focus on mitigating factors.
"Anything that they can put out there … in order to save his life," Suskauer said.
What does it mean for the prosecution?
Rudman, a former Palm Beach County prosecutor who is now a founding attorney for the Rudman Law Group in Boca Raton, said he believes the state will now be in a difficult position of having to "lay the foundation" that typically would be presented during trial.
He also said it's harder to convince a jury to sentence someone to death.
"You are now literally in the position of being the judge, jury and executioner," Rudman said of the jurors.
Rudman added that it's a "much different game when people know that they're on a death penalty case and on a death penalty trial, and that's going to make the state's job difficult."
For Cruz to be sentenced to death, the decision must be unanimous.
Families of the victims of that fateful day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will have the opportunity to speak, but not right away.
Suskauer said Wednesday's hearing is merely a change of plea.
"So you're not going to hear testimony," she said. "You're not going to hear in the courtroom from witnesses."
Suskauer said Scherer will first make sure Cruz understands what he's doing. Then she'll set a timeline for attorneys to select "what's called a death-qualified jury."
She said the voir dire will likely involve hundreds of people and plenty of challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's not easy to get all those folks," she said. "It really isn't."
What's the takeaway?
Rudman said he believes "the state is a little concerned" with how to present its case in the penalty phase.
But one certainty, Rudman said, is that Cruz will die in prison.
"The question is just how long it's going to take and how it happens," he said.
"Life is life, and he is young, and that's a long life to be behind bars forever," she said.