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New Hearing For Confessed Parkland Shooter Turns Into Argument Over COVID-19 Pandemic Protocol

Pool Image via AP
Judge Elizabeth Scherer was randomly assigned to the Cruz case in 2018.

Broward Judge Elizabeth Scherer and attorneys from the Public Defender's Office went back-and-forth Tuesday morning about the potential dangers of sending experts into jails to evaluate clients in person.

The hearing Tuesday morning began as a status update for the confessed Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz. It quickly devolved into a debate over whether attorneys and/or experts should be required to go into the Broward County jail system for close contact evaluations with inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cruz is awaiting a trial that was derailed by the pandemic. It was originally supposed to begin this past summer. He was indicted by a grand jury in March 2018 and faces 17 charges of first-degree murder and 17 charges of attempted first-degree murder for the massacre on Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

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One of the next steps in Cruz's case, is for a physical evaluation in jail. It would require an in-person visit from attorneys and an expert they bring, as well as the sharing of pens and documents, social distancing measures, and potential safety concerns if he needs to be unshackled during the evaluation.

Newly-elected Public Defender Gordon Weekes, began the hearing by making it clear to the court that his top two concerns are avoiding bringing the coronavirus in to inmates at Broward Sheriff's Office jails and keeping the attorneys that work in the Public Defender's Office safe.

"I'm concerned with anyone going into the jail, spreading the virus within the jail, including those individuals and those attorneys that may have to also interact with experts that are in the jail," Weekes said.

Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill has been heavily involved with Cruz's case from the beginning. She echoed the health concerns from her office.

"We have immune-compromised attorneys and we don't want to reassign the cases ... we shouldn't have to pick what attorneys go in because of their ability to fight the coronavirus," McNeill said.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer does not want this case to face further delays.

"I'd look into this more with an open mind, speak to the sheriff's office," said Scherer. "I don't think you can just make a general statement that you're not prepared to send any attorney or any expert into the jail because of the coronavirus."

Scherer may be eager to move this high profile case forward after two and a half years, yet several attorneys from the Public Defender's Office argued Cruz's case is not the only case that raises these concerns. They are asking for written policies and protocols in place from BSO to understand what safety measures are in place for inmates.

Weekes told the court he sent a letter to BSO asking for a rapid-testing protocol to be put in place before in-person contact is required between any inmates and outside counsel.

"It is essential that there is a level of comfort, a level of safety around any in-person contact with anyone within the jail. Although the jail may be reporting a short period of no positive tests within the facility, the jail has had a number of individuals within that facility test positive for coronavirus. There was an individual that died early on from coronavirus," Weekes pointed out. "We have to proceed with extreme caution when it comes to exposing, not only individuals in the jail, my staff and the attorneys in this office to the potential for contracting coronavirus."

An assistant general counsel for BSO, Christian Tsoubanos, was also in Tuesday's Zoom hearing.

"The sheriff's office is considering rapid testing and trying to acquire a machine — the Abbott machine specifically — but that's in the works. It's not available immediately and we don't know if we're going to get it," Tsoubanos said.

He told the court, "As long as [the Public Defender's Office attorneys] tell us what they need, command staff is ready, ready and willing to help them. It's the same policies and procedures that we normally follow."

He described temperature checks, mask-wearing policies and a health questionnaire for detention employees.

The Public Defender's Office argued general parameters are not enough.

"It's not my place to try to set the parameters between the jail and any office, Public Defender's Office or other. That's not my job. My job is to oversee this case," Scherer said.

"I'm just asking again that we see what we can do in this case. The sheriff's office is willing to make special concessions. And if we can do it, we can do it. If we can't, we can't," she said. "I don't want anyone to get sick or infected, but I do want to move this case along."

Scherer set the next status hearing in Cruz's case for Dec. 11 at 8:30 a.m. via Zoom.

"I would just ask that you all keep working," she said. "I understand I'm leaving this issue sort of unresolved and hoping that it will be resolved if you all work together."

Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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