FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The penalty phase trial for Nikolas Cruz, now 23, who pleaded guilty to 17-counts of first-degree murder began on April 4, 2022, with the first phase of jury selection. 12 jurors will determine whether Cruz, who was 19 years old when he took an Uber to his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on Feb. 14, 2018, and shot dozens of people, should be sentenced to life in prison without parole or will receive the death penalty.
Under Florida law, a jury must be unanimous in its decision to recommend that a judge sentence Cruz to be executed. If any of the 12 jurors objects, Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. To impose a death sentence, all 12 jurors must agree. If they do, it is up to the judge to make the final decision.
Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is presiding over the State of Florida vs. Nikolas Cruz.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer
Broward County Circuit Court judge Elizabeth Sherer was thrust into the spotlight upon being randomly assigned the murder case of Nikolas Cruz.
Sherer, 45, received her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and her J.D. from the University of Miami.
She was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott on Dec. 14, 2012. Prior to her appointment as judge, she was a prosecutor in the career criminal unit of the Broward State Attorney’s Office under Michael Satz, who is the lead prosecutor in the Parkland shooter’s penalty trial.
She comes from a law family. Her father, William R. Scherer, co-founded the law firm Conrad and Scherer. He was in the public eye during the historical 2000 Presidential Election Litigation in Florida, where he led a team of attorneys representing President George W. Bush and personally represented the President in the Broward County recount. Scherer also has said he recovered nearly $300 million for victims of disbarred lawyer Scott Rothstein’s $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme.
Here are other prominent figures in the high-profile Parkland shooter penalty trial phase.
The Prosecution Team for the State of Florida
Lead Prosecutor Michael Satz
Michael Satz, the longest-serving state attorney in Florida didn’t seek his 12th term in 2020 so that he could focus his attention on the death-penalty prosecution of Nikolas Cruz. At the time, he said demands of preparing for the trial . . .take precedence over campaigning.” Now, he has committed to personally prosecuting the case.
Cruz’s legal team wanted Satz removed from the case in 2019 because they claim he called the Parkland school shooter “evil; worse than Ted Bundy” and because he refused to reconsider seeking the death penalty. Scherer denied the defense motion to disqualify Satz from the case.
Seitz has tried some of Broward County’s most severe cases including a 22-month trial of three men convicted of murdering Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Tephford, the longest criminal case ever tried in Broward’s history. He also prosecuted the case of Gerhard Hojan, who was sentenced to death for the 2002 murders of two employees of a Waffle House restaurant in Davie where the killer forced them into a walk-in freezer at the restaurant and shot them.
Assistant State Attorney Steven Klinger
Steven Klinger received his J.D. from the University of Miami School of Law in 1984.
Most recently during the Cruz proceedings, Klinger was vocal about the defense’s request to suppress evidence collected from the confessed Parkland shooter’s Instagram accounts. While Cruz’s attorneys argued that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy when someone creates an Instagram account, Klinger said the defense’s request to suppress the evidence collected from Cruz’s Instagram accounts made the prosecution’s work impossible.
Klinger and the prosecution won the argument and jurors will be allowed to see his Instagram posts.
Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus
Assisted State Attorney Jeff Marcus has worked side by side with Michael Satz on a number of cases. He was hired by Satz in 1983.
Marcus has been the prosecutor who has worked to chip away at what is expected to be what defense attorneys will use as mitigating factors to argue Nikolas Cruz’s case in the penalty phase trial.
Prosecutors are expected to emphasize Cruz’s advanced planning of the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre and the horrific act as they work to present evidence of aggravating factors like premeditation beyond a reasonable doubt.
The defense team will likely focus on Cruz’s background, his childhood, mental condition, history of mental health issues and related medical documentation as they present evidence of the mitigating factors they want jurors to consider.
Since Cruz has already pleaded guilty to the 17 murders and 17 attempted murders, Marcus has said this about the selection of a jury: “Guilty is not an issue, so if there is a bias as to guilty, that is not a reason — it is about fairness toward the penalty.”
Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone
Assisted State Attorney Nicole Chiappone received her JD from the Catholic University of America School of Law, Washington, D.C., in 2006. Chiappone was previously a prosecutor with the Alachua County state attorney’s office, where the county seat is Gainesville.
Chiappone was front and center in what became known as the war of words in the Cruz case as his defense team wanted to limit words that could be used during the trial. Cruz’s public defenders introduced a motion that words such as “killer,” “massacre” and “mass shooter” be banned at Cruz’s trial.
Chiappone said the words that the defense was trying to limit were facts and that Cruz had referred to himself in his own videos as the “next school shooter.”
“Especially when they adequately describe the defendant and what he did, what else do you call an event where somebody goes into a school and kills 17 innocent people? That is a massacre,” Chiappone said.
The judge overseeing the case sided with McNeill and Cruz’s lawyers in ruling out derogatory terms during the trial. She rejected the request from McNeill that Cruz not be called “school shooter,” “killer” or “murderer.”
Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann
With the state attorney’s office since 1989, that’s more than three decades, and before that with the State of Florida’s Office of the Attorney General, Carolyn McCann is a veteran prosecutor by all accounts.
She’s been a no-nonsense presence in the courtroom during many phases of the Cruz trial. In one instance, during Cruz’s guilty pleas in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted, first-degree murder, she wanted to make it clear that Cruz understood one thing.
Cruz said this when given the chance to speak:
“ . . . I believe it is your decision to decide where I go . . . whether I live or die, not the jury’s. I believe it is your decision, I’m sorry,” Cruz said during his guilty pleas in October.
McCann approached the judge and stated: “When the defendant said at the very end that he believed that you were in charge of his sentence and not the jury . . . He does understand that in Florida, it is going to be a jury that determines his sentence . . . and not this court?” McCann told the judge in an effort to have Scherer make it clear to Cruz.
McCann was also emphatic that it was necessary for jurors to visit the 1200 building where the shootings took place.
“This is going to help the jury, assist the jury, in analyzing and understanding the aggravating factor of cold, calculated, pre-meditated aggravation of first-degree murder,” McCann said adding, “He started shooting at 2:22 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. The fact that they want to sanitize the classroom of blood, fluid, Valentine’s memorabilia, anything — as I understand it, he doesn’t want to come to grips with what he has done.”
The Defense Team for Nikolas Cruz
Lead Public Defender: Melisa McNeill
Melisa McNeill is the lead defense attorney for Nikolas Cruz. She is an assistant public defender in the homicide division at the Broward County Public Defender’s Office and has been with the office for 22 years. Her LinkedIn profile states that she is a Certified Death Penalty Attorney.
She has been high profile already in the high-profile case.
In her first appearance along with Cruz on Feb. 15, 2018, McNeill was publicly scrutinized in the press for putting her arm around Cruz and appearing to comfort him as he was ordered held without bond. When criticized for her actions, she told reporters outside of the court: “He’s a broken human being. He’s a broken child.”
In March of 2019, McNeill was involved in a contentious exchange with Scherer in which the judge told McNeil to “take it down a notch.”
Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler
David Wheeler has been the chief assistant public defender for the 17th Judicial Circuit in Broward County since November 2019.
In addition to being part of the team defending Cruz, Wheeler was also set to be the lead attorney in Cruz’s battery trial, which resulted from a scuffle between Cruz and a jail guard in November 2018, nine months after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
A motion was made to postpone the trial after Wheeler suffered a “serious medical emergency,” but Scherer denied the delay allowing for a week for the public defender’s office to find a replacement for Wheeler.
In November of 2021, the defense made a request to the judge about how one of the classrooms that became a crime scene might be referenced during the trial. Classroom 1214 was known as The Holocaust Room because a course about the Holocaust was taught and talked about his concern that a jury would “juxtapose” Cruz with Hitler if the reference was allowed.
“Our concern is that a jury would be more likely to juxtapose our client with Hitler, who killed six million Jewish people. We don’t want that happening,” Wheeler said. The judge decided that prosecutors need to specify in the trial that the room was used for the teaching of the Holocaust.
Wheeler was by Cruz’s side when he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder on Oct. 20, 2021.
Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis
Tamara Curtis graduated from the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and was admitted to the Florida bar in 2004.
Assigned to be a public defender for Nikolas Cruz, Curtis has publicly stated that the trial is “going to be a spectacle.” That statement was made in reference to her asking that jurors’ identities be protected. The state opposed the motion to have jurors referred to by number and not names.
Curtis said if the jurors’ names were known they could receive threats and other pressure to sentence Cruz to death.
The defense request was denied by the judge presiding over the case. Names of jurors have always been public record.
Prosecutor Nicole Chiappone argued that under Florida law, juror information can only be sealed based on evidence, not speculation.
Scherer said that laws about public records that are already in place cannot be “created out of thin air” when she denied the motion in February of 2022.
Curtis was also on the other side of Scherer’s rejecting of Cruz’s attorneys to bar the parents and other relatives of the victims of the Parkland school shooting to testify. In December of 2021, Curtis told the court that “an overly emotional display during presentation of victim impact statements will deprive (Cruz) of a fair trial.” Curtis and others in Cruz’s defense team wanted victim impact statements to be read allowed by a “neutral third party.”
Curtis was one of the attorneys who represented Bennie Hall who was accused of killing Olga Parlante, 71, of Dania Beach, in 1997. In 2018, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Assistant Public Defender Gabe Ermine
Assistant Public Defender Gabe Ermine is part of the Cruz defense team for the penalty phase trial and was the lead attorney for Nikolas Cruz for the caught-on-camera jail guard attack in November 2018.
During the second day of jury selection in that trial, Ermine was pressed by the judge as to why his client was given crayons when prosecutors pointed out that he was given colored pencils and a page from a coloring book at the defense table.
“Why does he need colored pencils and drawing paper?” Scherer asked.
“Judge, he is clearly upset, he is visually upset right now. I am trying to keep him calm during this trial,” Ermine responded.
“As long as he is not coloring with crayons as if he’s a child that’s fine but that is not appropriate,” the judge said. “If he wants to take notes that’s fine, if he wants to sit there that’s fine, if he wants to participate that’s fine, if he wants to be quiet that’s fine, but as far as coloring pictures on a picture book that does not assist him or you in selecting a fair and impartial jury, it gives an impression that he’s a child.”
He told to use a pen that was issued by the jail, the judge ultimately decided.
Cruz pleaded guilty to attacking the jail guard nine months after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Ermine, a graduate of Nova Southeastern University’s Law School and resident of Delray Beach, ran for a vacant Palm Beach County Court judge seat in 2018 but did not win.
Capital Defense Attorney Casey Secor
Casey M. Secor, who is part of the Cruz defense team for the penalty phase trial, is the founder and chief executive officer of Suzerain Capital Defense, based in Lexington, S.C., and a death penalty defense specialist.
His company is described as a “nonprofit public charity that provides pro bono representation to indigent criminal defendants facing capital murder prosecution.” On the law firm’s website, it states that since 2016, Secor has been involved in the defense of indigent defendants facing the death penalty in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana.
In June, Cruz’s lead attorney Melisa McNeill was ordered by Judge Elizabeth Scherer to move forward with jury selection when McNeill had wanted to not proceed because Secor could not be present.
It was one of the more tense exchanges between McNeill and Scherer.
McNeill said that Secor’s presence was necessary because of his special expertise in death penalty cases. Scherer said he could watch the proceedings on video and, if needed, could communicate with McNeill via telephone or text.
Secor was also the attorney who informed Scherer in court that the defense team would not show jurors brain scans done at the Broward County main jail. Cruz’s attorneys initially wanted to introduce the scans as evidence, but reversed course.