FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. >> The former student charged with killing 17 people at a Florida high school last month refused to announce a plea today so a judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill repeated that Nikolas Cruz would plead guilty if prosecutors waived the death penalty, which they refused to do. Cruz is accused of carrying out the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that also wounded 17 others.
The case has reignited a national debate about gun control and school safety, and prompted a nationwide walkout of thousands of students today showing solidarity a month after the shooting.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer entered the not guilty pleas on Cruz’s behalf after he remained silent.
“A plea of not guilty shall be entered on the defendant’s behalf on all 34 counts of the indictment,” Scherer said.
Shackled and wearing red jail clothes, Cruz sat in the jury box with his head bowed and said nothing. At least 20 Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies ringed the courtroom in a heavy show of security.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, sat in the second row and stared intently at Cruz. Also attending the hearing was Cruz’s younger brother, Zachary. Neither spoke with reporters.
Much of the hearing concerned whether Cruz has enough assets to pay a private lawyer rather than be represented at taxpayer expense by the public defender. McNeill told 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.
“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.
Scherer set an April 11 hearing on the assets issue.