The judge in charge of the penalty trial for Florida school shooter Nikolas Castro refused Monday’s motion by his lawyers. They accused her of being biased toward their client and prejudicing jurors who will decide whether he should be executed for the murder of 17 people four years earlier.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer denied Elizabeth McNeill’s motion, stating that it was insufficient legally. Scherer last Wednesday scolded Melisa McNeill, the lead defense attorney, and her team. She accused them of being “unprofessional” for unexpectedly resting their case after only 25 of the 80 witnesses that they told her and the prosecutors had been called.
In court documents filed last Wednesday, the defense stated that these comments and those made by the judge to the jury were “the culmination of the cumulative disdain” Scherer showed throughout the case towards Cruz and themselves. Legal observers say that the defense was not required to notify the judge or prosecution of their plans to rest or call all its witnesses.
In court documents, the prosecution argued that Schererer’s comments weren’t at the level of showing bias against Cruz. They cited a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which stated that “expressions of dissatisfaction or anger” by a judge against the defense is not grounds to resign.
A mistrial could have been declared if Schererer had not resigned. Before a new trial could have been held, the new judge would need to be prepared for months.
Cruz, 23 , pleaded guilty to killing 14 students and three school staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.. The trial began in April with jury selection and ended in July with testimony. It is to decide if Cruz will be sentenced to life or death. To sentence him to death, the jury must be unanimous.
Two lawyers who watched the trial said that the defense team did not expect Scherer to resign — they only wanted her performance to be part of their appeal if Cruz is sentenced. They had to object immediately in order to do so.
Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University professor, and a law school teacher, stated that there was “absolutely no possibility” that Scherer would withdraw from the case.
Jarvis stated that if she did, she would admit she had done a terrible job. Schererer, an ex-prosecutor, hadn’t overseen a first-degree murder trial before she was assigned to the Cruz case.
David S. Weinstein is a Miami defense lawyer and ex-prosecutor. He said that the defense also hopes the motion “tempers (Scherer),” speaks to both sides in open court.
McNeill and Scherer have fought since the beginning of pretrial hearings, which began over three years ago. They have often spit on each other about the judge’s refusals to defend motions or objections.
On Wednesday, the sniping became shouting when McNeill announced that the defense was taking a break at the start of the court day. Although the prosecution expected that the defense case would last longer, it was not ready to start its rebuttal.