Defense unexpectedly suspends case in Florida school shooter trial

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lawyers for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz suddenly and surprisingly closed their case Wednesday, leading to a shouting match after the judge accused them of unprofessionalism.

Cruz’s attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would call 80 witnesses, but rested at the start of Wednesday’s hearing after calling only about 25. There have been 11 days of testimony from defense in total, with the latter two spotlighting experts on how her mother’s drinking during pregnancy could have affected her brain development.

Lead Counsel Melisa McNeill’s sudden announcement led to a heated exchange between her and Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who called the ruling without warning her or the prosecution “the most unwarranted and least professional 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 prosecutors weren’t ready to begin their rebuttal.

Mike Satz raised his hands when Scherer asked if they could start and with a nervous laugh said “no”.

“We are expecting another 40 (defence) witnesses,” Satz said.

Scherer then accused Cruz’s attorneys of being inconsiderate to everyone involved, but especially the jurors of ruining their trip to court.

“For 22 people to show up in court and wait like it’s some kind of game. I’ve never experienced such unprofessionalism in my career,” Scherer said, raising his voice.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is introduced to the defense table just before his defense team announced plans to end his case during the penalty phase of his trial on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale.

McNeill angrily replied, “You are officially insulting me in front of my client”, before Scherer told him to stop. Scherer then met McNeill, with whom she has had a strained relationship since preliminary hearings began three years ago.

“You insulted me the whole trial,” Scherer barked at McNeill. “Removing your headphones blatantly, arguing with me, storming out, showing up late on purpose if you don’t like my decisions. So, quite frankly, this is long overdue. So please sit down.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to the February 14, 2018 murder of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. His trial, now ending in its second month, is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole.

After his lawyers rested, he told Scherer under oath that he agreed with the decision.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks out strongly as she calls out lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill "unprofessional" after McNeill announced the defense's intention to close their case on Wednesday.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks curtly as she calls lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill “unprofessional” after McNeill announced the defense’s intention to close their case on Wednesday.

His attorneys’ theme throughout their case has been to show how his birth mother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy set Cruz on a path to erratic, bizarre, and often violent behavior that culminated in the shooting. They also tried to show that his adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, was upset after her husband died when Cruz was 5 and never gave him proper treatment.

They attempt to overcome the prosecution’s case, which focused on the massacre of Cruz as he stalked a three-story classroom for seven minutes with an AR-15 type semi-automatic rifle. Senior prosecutor Mike Satz released security videos of the shooting and showed the rifle used by Cruz. Teachers and students testified that they watched others die.

Satz showed graphic autopsy and crime scene photos and led jurors into the fenced-in building, which remains bloodstained and riddled with bullet holes. Parents and spouses have made tearful and angry statements about their loss.

Prosecutors said they will need more than a week to prepare their rebuttal. The trial is tentatively scheduled to resume on September 27.


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