Defense Makes Shock Move in Cruz Case, Shouting Ensues

Judge and lead defense attorney get into it
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 14, 2022 11:26 AM CDT
Attorney, Judge Get Into Shouting Match at Cruz Trial
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks sharply calling lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill "unprofessional" after McNeill announced the defense's intention to rest their case during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz.   (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Attorneys for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz suddenly and surprisingly rested their case Wednesday, leading to a shouting match after the judge accused them of a lack of professionalism. Cruz's attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would be calling 80 witnesses but rested at the beginning of Wednesday's court session after calling only about 25. The sudden announcement by lead attorney Melisa McNeill led to a heated exchange between her and Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who called the decision without warning to her or the prosecution "the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case."

The 12-member jury and 10 alternates were not present but were lining up outside the courtroom to enter, reports the AP. The sudden announcement also meant that prosecutors were not ready to begin their rebuttal case. Mike Satz threw his hands up when Scherer asked if they could begin and, with a nervous laugh, said "no." Scherer then accused Cruz's attorneys of being inconsiderate to all involved, but especially the jurors for wasting their trip to court. "To have 22 people march into court and be waiting as if it is some kind of game. I have never experienced such a level of unprofessionalism in my career," Scherer said, raising her voice.

McNeill countered angrily, "You are insulting me on the record in front of my client," before Scherer told her to stop. Scherer then laid into McNeill, with whom she has had a testy relationship since pretrial hearings began three years ago. "You’ve been insulting me the entire trial," Scherer barked at McNeill. "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."

There were 11 days of defense testimony overall, the last two spotlighting experts about how Cruz's birth mother's heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy might have affected his brain's development. Cruz's trial, now ending its second month, is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole for the 2018 massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After his attorneys rested, Cruz told Scherer under oath that he agreed with the decision. Prosecutors said they will need more than a week to prepare their rebuttal case. The trial is tentatively scheduled to resume Sept. 27. (Read more Nikolas Cruz stories.)

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