PARKLAND, Fla. – Confessed Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz was back in a South Florida courtroom on Wednesday after pleading guilty to all of the charges brought against him.
Attorneys in the case were arguing over how to refer to one particular classroom.
Defense filed a motion about a term used for a classroom that became a crime scene
“All the faculty and teachers knew that room as the Holocaust Room,” said prosecutor Nicole Chiappone.
The hearing, which was basically about what the defense doesn’t want a penalty phase jury to see and hear, did include a term used to describe classroom 1214, where according to the defense motion, two Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims were killed and four were hurt.
A course about the Holocaust was taught in that room.
The defense asked the judge to bar prosecutors and witnesses from calling it The Holocaust Room. They would prefer just the classroom number or teacher’s name, arguing the phrase is “inflammatory” and “wholly unnecessary.”
“Our concern is that a jury would be more likely to juxtapose our client with Hitler, who killed six million Jewish people,” said defense attorney David Wheeler. “We don’t want that happening.”
The defense added in their written motion that using that term is “particularly troubling” given that the state also wants to introduce evidence in the form of “hand-etched swastikas on items allegedly belonging to Cruz.”
A separate motion, which the defense filed Wednesday, said they will argue to the Judge in early-December regardinig a photograph of a backpack with “inflammatory words and images” as evidence.
According to the defense motion, in 2016 a former MSD student took picture of a student wearing a red backpack containing, “a drawing of a swastika and the words ‘f— you n—r’ written on it.”
After the school shooting in 2018, that former student, the defense writes in its motion, said he believed it was Cruz who was wearing that backpack in the 2016 photograph.
The defense argues that the photograph as a form of evidence is inadmissible in their view because they consider it “irrelevant” to the Parkland shooting. They say that there is “no evidence that any victim was targeted because of race or religion, and the state is not claiming otherwise.
Moreover, the State does not have any evidence that Mr. Cruz drew the swastika symbol on the backpack or wrote the offensive words on it.” Adding, “the only purpose would be to inflame the jury in what will already be an otherwise emotional trial.”
The state argued that the term is not prejudicial, but rather a factual reference point.
Both sides told the judge some students did refer to it as something quite similar: “The Holocaust Studies Room.”
The judge agreed with the state but added that during witness questioning and cross-examination, both sides can clarify that the term refers to subject matter taught.
Also Wednesday, the defense asked the judge to preclude as evidence any firearms or ammunition not used during the shooting.
The state argued those items collected during the execution of search warrants at different properties are relevant as it shows Cruz was planning and preparing.
“I don’t know what relevancy that would have Judge, besides painting my client in a somewhat weird light of having these things in possession,” said Wheeler.
The defense argued any firearms and ammunition collected during the execution of search warrants at different properties are not relevant as they were not used in the commission of the crimes charged.
The state disagreed, telling the judge the items, for example a gun cleaning kit or ammunition rounds, show that there was planning and preparation which will play a role as they present their case to the penalty phase jury and argue aggravating factors as the state seeks the death penalty.
“It goes to the premeditation factor,” said Chiappone.
The judge made a determination on each item and said she will issue a related written order.
Also revealed in court Wednesday was that the defense may be calling upwards of eight mental health witnesses.
The state told the judge at this time the defense has said these experts have not yet made a formal diagnosis and that the defense has yet to detail for the prosecution which mitigating factors they will argue during the penalty phase.
The next court date is Nov. 15.
On that day it was anticipated that both sides would discuss defense motions to suppress related to Cruz’s defense team asking the judge to exclude evidence related to three search warrants. One was related to his cell phone, the other two related to search warrants executed at two different residences he once resided at; one in Lantana, the other in Pompano Beach.
The state told the judge they want her to decline the defense request for evidentiary hearings on those motions, and several other newly filed motions, as for each there could be upwards of 10 witnesses.
Chiappone said that could mean, “we would be in hearings for days” and indicated the state doesn’t think the defense met its burden to ask for an evidentiary hearing.
The judge asked the state to file a related motion by Friday and told the defense if they plan to submit a written objection, their response would need to be filed by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9.
She said she would then issue an order the following day, on Nov. 10, by 5 p.m.
The judge added that, “we are getting close to the trial date,” and that she does plan to push it back.