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Judge's tongue-lashing criticized; defense lawyers end their case for Parkland school shooter

Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks in court just after the defense team announced their intention to rest their case during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter at the Broward County Courthouse on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks in court just after the defense team announced their intention to rest their case during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter at the Broward County Courthouse on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.

Defense lawyers for the Parkland school shooter rested their case Wednesday, a move that came as a surprise–especially to the judge.

The defense listed 80 witnesses but only called 26 in their attempt to spare Nikolas Cruz from the death penalty.

The witnesses included friends of both his birth mother and adoptive mother, as well as teachers and counselors who Cruz interacted with in his childhood.

Their last witness, an expert on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, testified that Cruz’s birth mother drank more alcohol than any other woman he had documented.

After that expert, the defense team for the murderer decided the jury had heard enough, eliciting a tongue-lashing from Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.

“I just want to say this is the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case,” she told lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill.

When McNeill tried to explain, Scherer cut her off.

“You've been insulting me the entire trial. So blatantly taking your headphones off arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don't like my rulings. So quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated,” the judge said.

The judge’s outburst likely won’t affect the trial moving forward but may be brought up if the sentencing is appealed.

Craig Trocino runs the University of Miami’s Law Innocence Clinic, he isn’t directly involved in the case but has followed it closely.

“Case law refers to a judge as the cold neutrality of an impartial magistrate,” he said. “And I get that in these cases it's stressful, and it's tense, and things can flare up. But judges need to recognize that they're in charge of the courtroom.”

Bob Jarvis is a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Like Trocino, he is not involved in the case but has followed it.

“For her to say that it was unprofessional, for her to say that this was a long time coming – her blow up with them is stunning,” he said.

He says the abrupt ending means that defense lawyers are confident they presented enough evidence to keep Nikolas Cruz off death row.

“You always want to rest at the moment that you feel that you have made your case, and that anything more will start to alienate the jury or lose the jury. …. And then of course, there's the possibility that the defense was worried that these additional witnesses would be talking about things that would be very damaging when the prosecutors got a chance to cross examine them.”

The defense’s case rested heavily on the decisions of others, starting with Cruz’s birth mother Brenda Woodard. Woodard drank heavily during her pregnancy causing Cruz to develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, according to expert testimony.

Defense lawyers questioned a friend of Woodard, who died last year, and her daughter. Danielle Woodard, Cruz’s half sister testified to seeing her drink and use drugs while pregnant with Cruz.

Cruz’s lawyers took a chronological approach as they traced his troubled life. He had behavioral issues and trouble communicating in school. He would bite other children, had trouble walking and would act like a wild animal in class.

By the time he reached middle school, Cruz grew more threatening. Carrie Yon, one of his teachers at West Glades middle school testified that he was obsessed with guns and violence and told her he “was a bad kid” and “wanted to kill.”

The last witness called by defense attorneys was Dr. Kenneth Jones, a former University of California, San Diego, medical school professor who did some of the pioneering research on fetal alcohol abuse 50 years ago.

He examined Cruz after he was arrested and testified that his examination shows fetal alcohol spectrum disorder but not fetal alcohol syndrome. Part of the difference is that Cruz lacked the physical characteristics of someone with fetal alcohol syndrome, possibly delaying treatment or diagnosis for it.

Prosecutors pushed back when Jones testified Cruz would have struggled with planning and organization. Cruz had researched police response times to school shootings and different types of guns that he could use, according to internet searches presented by prosecutors.

The trial will resume with the state’s rebuttal case on September 27.

After that, both sides will give closing arguments and the jury will deliberate on the 17 murder charges and decide whether or not to give Cruz the death penalty.

The jury must be unanimous for Cruz to receive the death penalty. If the defense can convince one juror to vote for life in prison, then that will be the sentence.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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