FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Attorneys for Parkland gunman Nikolas Cruz abruptly rested their case Wednesday in an unexpected turn that dissolved into a shouting match between the judge and defense lawyers.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in 2021 to killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb 14, 2018, in one of the country’s deadliest school shootings that reignited calls for stricter gun laws. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, while the gunman’s defense is arguing life in prison without parole. For a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous.
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The prosecution’s case focused on the details of the school shooting, showing graphic autopsy and crime scene photos. Lead prosecutor Mike Satz detailed how the gunman committed the massacre with an AR-15-style semiautomatic, calling teachers and students to testify about watching others die.
Over 11 days of testimony, Cruz’s attorneys focused their defense on his life story, stressing that his birth mother’s alcohol abuse left him with severe behavioral problems leading up to the shooting when he was 19.
Cruz’s attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would be calling 80 witnesses, but when Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer looked from attorney to attorney flanking Cruz 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 defence, which was anticipated to call about 40 more 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 testified about Cruz’s troubled days attending Stoneman Douglas, where he was often searched for weapons.
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The judge appeared momentarily shocked before ripping into the defense team.
“I just want to say this is the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case,” Scherer said.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz’s lead public defender, steeled herself against the judge. She objected to Scherer insulting her on the record and said she believed she should be able to defend herself.
“Do that later,” the judge answered. “You’ve been insulting me the entire trial, blatantly. Taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don’t like my rulings. Quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated .”
Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s law school near Fort Lauderdale, said the defense’s decision to rest is hard to fathom.
“Perhaps the defense felt it had made its case. Perhaps the defense felt it was losing the jury and further witnesses would only alienate the jury. Perhaps the defense felt that the witnesses to be called would give the prosecution too much leeway to explore matters during cross-examination that the defense did not want to be explored,” Jarvis said.
But Scherer’s chastising of McNeil was uncalled for, he said. Jarvis has outspokenly argued that Scherer is not the right judge for the case, having never tried a first-degree murder trial before Cruz’s case.
“It was the defense’s right to rest when it thought the right moment was reached. Indeed, I have never heard of a judge effectively demanding that a party call all its proposed witnesses,” Jarvis said.
Prosecutors will begin their weeklong rebuttal Sept. 27 and offer closing arguments the following week. Jurors are tentatively scheduled to begin their deliberation Oct. 10. A vote for death must be unanimous. If just one of the 12 jurors votes for life, Scherer must sentence Cruz accordingly.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Celina Tebor, USA TODAY
Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at [email protected].
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