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Defense lawyers for Parkland school shooter ask to be removed from case

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(Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)
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The Associated Press
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks with, from left; assistant state attorney Carolyn McCann, and assistant public defenders Tamara Curtis and Melisa McNeill during a break in jury pre-selection in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Cruz is facing a possible death sentence for murdering 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland four years earlier.

Defense lawyers for the man who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 asked the judge to step down from the case.

This came hours after the defense motioned to withdraw if they were forced to continue today, as one of their lawyers is out sick with COVID-19.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer denied both of those motions and continued with jury selection Monday afternoon. After hours of arguing the court agreed to only ask jurors about hardships and not their feelings on the death penalty.

Casey Secor, who leads jury selection for the defense, is quarantining due to COVID-19. He is clear to return to court Tuesday after a negative test, according to federal guidelines.

Melisa McNeill told Judge Elizabeth Scherer that she was unwilling to continue defending Nikolas Cruz during a heated discussion Monday morning.

"At this time, the defense would move to withdraw from the case of state of Florida versus Nicholas Cruz," McNeill, the lead defense lawyer, told Scherer.

This came after Scherer denied a motion to continue the trial one more day due to a defense lawyer's absence.

Prosecutors called the push to delay "strategic" and Scherer agreed, ordering the defense to continue without Secor. At that point McNeill told the judge she wasn't willing to move forward and choose between her professional standing and giving Cruz her best legal representation.

"Right now, if I do not comply with the court's order and do not protect Mr. Cruz's constitutional rights to due process, I have to consider whether or not my liberty is going to be in jeopardy or Mr. Cruz's liberty is going to be in jeopardy," McNeill told the judge. "I'm also going to have to consider whether or not my law license can be impacted, which would impact my ability to raise my children, feed my children and educate my children."

Disobeying a court order could result in someone being held in contempt of court, although Scherer did say she had no intentions of doing so.

McNeill said she notified the court of Secor's illness last Thursday and got no response. This is at least the second member of the defense team to get sick during the trial.

Broward County is in the highest of the federal COVID-19 community levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The categorization reflects surging cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations.

Another motion to continue the trial, filed last Friday, was not addressed Monday morning.

The defense asked for another delay in jury selection after the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde.

"To make any attempt to conduct a fair, constitutional trial in the wake of the Uvalde and Buffalo tragedies would be futile," defense lawyers wrote.

That motion was not mentioned in court Monday.

Dozens of prospective jurors were questioned and asked to return at a later date to answer questions about their feelings on the death penalty. Lawyers are in the second round of a three-round jury selection aimed at picking 20 jurors for the trial. Eight of those jurors will be alternates.

Gerard Albert III is back in Broward, where he grew up, after reporting on crime and public safety in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and West Palm Beach. Albert is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University.