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Attorneys for Nikolas Cruz want to question mental health counselors alone

Prosecutors say doing so 'would unequivocally enable' obstruction of crime

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz sits in a Broward County courtroom during a hearing, April 18, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz sits in a Broward County courtroom during a hearing, April 18, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Attorneys for the suspect in last year's Parkland school shooting are asking a judge to let them question his former mental health counselors without prosecutors present.

Lawyers for Nikolas Cruz asked Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer for permission to question the counselors "free from intrusion by the state."

The counselors treated Cruz before the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead.

Attorneys wanted to question the counselors informally, but their employer, Henderson Behavioral Health, said they would only comply if subpoenaed. That would require prosecutors' attendance. Cruz's lawyers argue that would hinder their ability to prepare his defense.

Prosecutors said there is no exception to the rule allowing their attendance.

"There is absolutely no authority to compel a witness or any person to speak to them, under oath or otherwise, ex parte," assistant state attorney Nicole Chiappone wrote in her response to the defense's motion.

Chiappone said Cruz's lawyers are essentially seeking authority "to subpoena unidentified Henderson witnesses without notice to the state, with complete discretion to either disclose or conceal information learned via subpoenaed testimony." Doing so "would unequivocally enable defendants to obstruct the prosecution of crime," she wrote.

Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer listens to arguments from prosecutor Steven Klinger and defense attorney Melisa McNeil during a hearing for Nikolas Cruz, April 18, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer listens to arguments from prosecutor Steven Klinger and defense attorney Melisa McNeil during a hearing for Nikolas Cruz, April 18, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

A hearing on the matter was held Thursday afternoon, but Scherer said she needed more time to decide before making a ruling.

Lawyers for Cruz, 20, have offered a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.