March 8 (UPI) -- The former student accused of killing 17 people in a mass shooting at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School withdrew his not guilty plea Thursday.
"A written plea of not guilty was filed in this cause prematurely before formal charges were filed. Having now been indicted by the grand jury, the defendant Nikolas Cruz withdraws that filing and stands mute to the changes pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.170 (c) (2018)," the withdrawal statement reads, WFTS-TV in Tampa reported.
Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, said the plea was withdrawn in hopes of avoiding the possibility of the death penalty.
"We are not saying he is 'not guilty,' but we can't plead 'guilty' while death is still on the table. Pleading 'not guilty,' even though it is form and process kicking off the legal process, just seemed wrong in this case, a legal fiction that could bring unnecessary pain to the victims' families. Standing mute maintains our only position: he [Cruz] did it and he will plead guilty immediately to 34 consecutive life sentences without parole," Finklestein said.
Cruz confessed to the shooting after his arrest and was indicted by a grand jury Wednesday on 34 charges, including 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder.