Defense attorneys for the confessed Parkland school shooter are warning that there could be drawbacks to starting his trial early next year.
Last week, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer ordered prosecutors and Nikolas Cruz’s defense to be ready for jury selection by Jan. 27. But during a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday, defense attorneys said they need more time to finish interviewing witnesses and other preparations.
If they’re not ready by January, they said, there could be an appeal and retrial, further delaying the resolution of the case.
“Most capital death penalty cases don’t go to trial this quick because it just takes time. You’re talking about doing very forensic type examinations,” defense attorney David Frankel told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing. “We’re trying to avoid this coming back on appeal as much as anybody.”
Prosecutors have said they will be ready for trial regardless of the start date. Scherer on Wednesday refused to change the date, saying the case has already dragged on long enough.
“You all need to do your best,” she told Cruz’s legal team. “Whatever you have to do, you have to get it ready.”
Defense attorneys have said they need to take depositions and interview at least 100 witnesses that might be called to testify in trial. Frankel said the case requires greater preparation because state prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty.
Cruz has said he would plead guilty to killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors have rejected the proposal.
Frankel said Cruz’s defense team may not be ready to cross-examine witnesses in a trial that starts in January. In an appeal, the defense attorneys could then argue that the trial start date prevented them from adequately defending Cruz and could provide grounds for a retrial.
“We have constitutional responsibilities to prepare for trial. If we’re not, we have a responsibility not to participate because we would be ineffective as his counsel, which would cause even more problems,” Frankel said. “It would be up to an appellate court to look and say, ‘Well did the judge give us enough time.’”
Scherer and state prosecutors have previously said the trial must start soon in order to finally settle the case and give the local community closure.
Cruz did not appear at the hearing on Wednesday, which began with a discussion about whether his legal team will introduce a mental insanity argument on his behalf.
Prosecutors said they would need a witness list if such a defense is argued. But defenders said they remain unsure whether they will proceed with an insanity argument.