FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Lawyers for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz asked the judge in his murder case to step aside on Friday, two days after she reprimanded them when they abruptly suspended their case after calling only a fraction of their expected witnesses.
The Broward Public Defender’s Office said in a motion that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has a long-standing animosity toward lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill.
The motion cited the Florida Code of Judicial Ethics which states that a judge must disqualify himself if his impartiality can reasonably be questioned, including, but not limited to, in cases where the judge is biased or a personal bias about a party or a party’s counsel. Defense attorneys said Scherer’s repeated inappropriate and unwarranted attacks on the defense attorney undermine public confidence in the justice system and also raised concerns that Cruz may not receive a fair trial.
Prosecutors said in a response that Scherer was respectful to both parties.
Cruz’s attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would call 80 witnesses, but surprisingly rested at the start of Wednesday’s hearing after calling just 25 of them.
There have been 11 days of defense testimony in total, the last two highlighting experts on how her birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy could have affected her brain development and leading to the murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland four years ago.
Lead Counsel McNeill’s sudden announcement led to a heated exchange between her and Scherer, who called the decision without warning to her or the accusation “the most unwarranted and unprofessional way to judge a case.”
The 12-member jury and 10 alternates were not present but lined up outside the courtroom to enter. The sudden announcement also meant that prosecutors were not ready to begin their rebuttal case.
Scherer then accused Cruz’s attorneys of being inconsiderate to everyone involved, but especially the jurors of ruining their trip to court.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to the murder of 14 Stoneman Douglas students and three staff members on February 14, 2018. His trial, now ending in its second month, is only aimed at determining s he should be sentenced to death or life without parole. . For a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous.
After his lawyers rested, Cruz told Scherer that he agreed with the decision.
Prosecutors said they will need more than a week to prepare their rebuttal. The trial is now set to tentatively resume on September 27 and end the week of October 10.