Lawyers for Parkland gunman abruptly put case on hold
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lawyers for Parkland gunman Nikolas Cruz abruptly closed their case Wednesday in an unexpected twist that turned into a shouting match between the judge and defense attorneys.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in 2021 to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, in one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings that has reignited calls for laws tougher on firearms. Prosecutors seek the death penalty, while the shooter’s defense pleads life in prison without the possibility of parole. For a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous.
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The prosecution case focused on details of the school shooting, showing graphic autopsy and crime scene photos. Lead prosecutor Mike Satz detailed how the shooter carried out the massacre with an AR-15 type semi-automatic, calling on teachers and students to testify about watching others die.
During 11 days of testimony, Cruz’s attorneys focused their defense on his life story, pointing out that his biological mother’s alcohol abuse had caused him severe behavioral problems before the shooting at the age of 19 years old.
Cruz’s attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would call 80 witnesses, but when Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer looked from one attorney to another on Wednesday morning and asked them repeatedly who their next witness was , the defense rested.
The news was a stunning and abrupt end to Cruz’s defense, which was to call about 40 other witnesses to testify – including Cruz’s brother, Zachary Cruz. He was a central figure in their case with witnesses accusing him of bullying his smaller, weaker brother.
And no witnesses have testified to Cruz’s troubled days at Stoneman Douglas, where he was often wanted for weapons.
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The judge looked momentarily shocked before tearing into the defense team.
“I just want to say it’s the most unwarranted and unprofessional way to judge a case,” Scherer said.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz’s main public defender, got tough on the judge. She objected to Scherer officially insulting her and said she felt she could defend herself.
“Do that later,” the judge replied. “You insulted me the whole trial, blatantly. Take off your headphones, argue with me, storm out, show up late on purpose if you don’t like my decisions. Frankly, this is long overdue. So , please sit down.”
Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University School of Law near Fort Lauderdale, said the defense’s decision to rest was difficult to understand.
“Maybe the defense felt they had made their case. Maybe the defense felt they were losing the jury and more witnesses would only alienate the jury. Maybe that the defense felt that the witnesses to be called would give the prosecution too much leeway to explore issues during cross-examination that the defense did not want to explore,” Jarvis said.
But Scherer’s rebuke of McNeil was unwarranted, he said. Jarvis openly argued that Scherer was the wrong judge for the case, having never attempted a first-degree murder trial before the Cruz case.
“It was the defense’s right to rest when they thought the right time had come. Indeed, I have never heard of a judge actually requiring a party to call all of their proposed witnesses,” Jarvis said.
Prosecutors will begin their week-long rebuttal on September 27 and present closing arguments the following week. Jurors are tentatively scheduled to begin their deliberation on October 10. A vote for death must be unanimous. If only one of the 12 jurors votes for life, Scherer must convict Cruz accordingly.
Contributor: The Associated Press; Celina Tebor, USA TODAY
Hannah Phillips is a reporter covering public safety and criminal justice at the Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.