FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) — Exactly one month after 17 lives were tragically taken in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, the former student turned confessed shooter, Nikolas Cruz, went to court for his formal arraignment but he refused to announce a plea so the judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill waived the formal reading of the 34-count indictment and repeated that Nikolas Cruz would plead guilty if prosecutors waived the death penalty, which they refused to do.
“We’d just like to advise the court and the state of Florida that at any time Mr. Cruz is willing to enter a plea of guilty on all 34 counts consecutive life sentences in exchange for the waiver of the death penalty,” she said.
Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, said previously there were so many warning signs that Cruz was mentally unstable and potentially violent, and that the death penalty might be going too far.
In an email Tuesday, Finkelstein said Cruz is “immediately ready” to plead guilty in return for 34 consecutive life sentences.
Cruz did not enter a plea, which is known as standing mute before the court.
“In terms of entering a plea, we stand mute, your honor,” stated McNeill to the judge.
In response, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer then entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf to keep the legal process moving along.
“A plea of not guilty shall be entered on the defendant’s behalf on all 34 counts of the indictment,” Scherer said.
Cruz’ attorneys say he will plead guilty to all charges if the death penalty is not pursued.
Shackled and wearing red jail clothes, Cruz sat in the jury box with his head down and said nothing. At least 20 Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies ringed the courtroom in a heavy show of security.
At least one person in the courtroom was wearing an “MSD Strong” shirt and several wore #MSDStrong bracelets. Others wore ribbons and buttons with photos of their loved ones on them.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie died in the shooting, was angry the state decided to pursue the death penalty, noting how tortuously long capital punishment cases last. During the hearing, Guttenberg sat in the second row and stared intently at Cruz. Also attending the hearing was Cruz’s younger brother, Zachary. Neither spoke with reporters.
A large portion of the hearing focused on a discussion between the judge and Cruz’ attorneys about the estate of his late mother.
McNeill told Judge Scherer that Cruz may have as much as $37,000 combined in a bank account and life insurance proceeds from his mother’s death last November. Cruz also has 24 shares of Microsoft stock and some other assets, McNeill said.
McNeill said they don’t know his net worth and that’s important to determine if he qualifies for public defender services. They also said he is a beneficiary of $25-thousand from his late mother’s insurance policy.
“What this information means in terms of his net worth, I don’t know,” McNeill said. “The court can make a determination once we do a more thorough review.” But she added: “I don’t think there’s a private attorney in Florida that would take a 17-count first degree murder case” for $37,000.
Judge Scherer set a hearing for April 11 on the questions of Cruz’s finances and whether he qualifies for the services of the Public Defender.
A court date of April 27 was set for a calendar call in the case and a tentative trial date of April 30 but the trial is not expected to begin at that time.
Attorney Alex Arreaza, is representing victim Anthony Borges and his family, brought up another issue. Arreaza says decisions made by law enforcement and prosecutors over the years might have prevented Nikolas Cruz from facing arrest or punishment for other offenses. He and Borges’ father believe there’s a question about whether Broward prosecutors should handle the case.
“How did this guy falls through the cracks?” Arreaza said. “We’re just trying to make sure that this is not the 3rd failure for these people. They buried their children.”
Royer Borges, Anthony’s father, agreed.
“They have to listen,” Borges said. “It’s important not only for the case but for the community to understand there was a fault. There was a big fault at the schoolboy, the sheriff’s office. There was a big fault that allowed this to happen. So we have to work on this and fix this fault.”
Borges also said that his son is improving but faces a long road of recovery ahead.
“He’s responding well to everything,” he said. “With a lot of pain but it’s five bullet wounds so it’s little by little. It’s not going to happen quickly. We have to concenrtrate with the family and keep praying. We thank everyone for their prayers.”