Defense team for Parkland school shooter asks judge to withdraw from case

Judge Elizabeth Scherer declines motion

The defense team for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz filed a motion Monday, asking Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer to withdraw from the case.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The defense team for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz filed a motion Monday, asking Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer to withdraw from the case.

It comes amid the ongoing jury selection process in the penalty phase of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High School shooting trial.

Scherer would end up declining the motion, calling it “legally insufficient.”

“A motion to disqualify a judge is directed toward the feeling of a litigant as to the impartiality of his/her judge,” explained legal analyst David Bogenschutz. “Even a showing of prejudice against the party’s attorney can serve as a reasonable ground for disqualification.”

The motion came after lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill told Scherer that she was seeking to withdraw from the case herself.

Her motion to withdraw came after Scherer ordered both sides to move forward with asking potential jurors about their views on the death penalty, even though defense attorney Casey Secor was still out sick and “in quarantine.”

McNeill requested that the court proceed with asking potential jurors about hardships until Secor is able to return. She said that Secor’s appearance in the courtroom is crucial because he was hired primarily to assist with jury selection in the initial phases and is the only other member of the defense team other than herself who has death-penalty trial experience.

The state did not object, but the judge was visibly frustrated and accused the defense of rendering themselves “ineffective” to their client on purpose.

“I’m not comfortable going forward without him, Judge,” McNeill said.

“Well, you’re going to have to,” Scherer responded.

“And my client. Furthermore, my client,” McNeill said.

“Your client has the right to have a competent lawyer,” Scherer said. “Your client does not have the right to have every lawyer – five lawyers.”

“Judge, at this time the defense would move to withdraw from the case of the state of Florida vs. Nikolas Cruz,” McNeill responded. “Right now, if I do not comply with the court’s order and do not protect Mr. Cruz’s constitutional rights to due process, I now have to consider whether or not my liberty is going to be at jeopardy or Mr. Cruz’s liberty is going to be at jeopardy. I’m also going to have to consider whether or not my law license can be impacted, which would impact my ability to raise my children, feed my children and educate my children.”

Scherer ultimately said she “respectfully” denied the motion to withdraw.

Legal analyst David Weinstein says the ordeal put McNeill in a precarious position because “she now has to choose between disobeying a direct order from the court or providing assistance to her client.”

Following a recess, Prosecutor Carolyn McCann asked for the sake of the case and because there was just hours left in the workday, that they move on with questioning potential jurors about hardships and begin again on Tuesday.

McNeill then entered the courtroom and handed in a “motion for disqualification” against the judge. Scherer asked for a moment for her to review it before denying it.

The judge then said she was calling in potential jurors to check for hardships, despite what she stated earlier that they would move forward with questioning about potential jurors’ views on the death penalty.

“All in all, a complicated morning that was supposed to move this case forward,” Weinstein said. “Also lingering in the back is a motion that was filed on Friday by the defense asking the judge to continue the matter because of the shooting in Uvalde, and the other shootings that have taken place, which in their mind creates a problem for them to get a fair or impartial jury. That matter has yet to be calendared or even resolved.”

That motion was initially expected to be discussed sometime Monday. At issue are the recent mass shootings and how that may affect a jury’s ability to be unbiased.

The continuance stated: “To continue this trial for a reasonable period of time to allow the wave of emotion surrounding the recent mass shootings to subside so that Mr. Cruz can be tried by a jury free from bias and prejudice against him for events that are not relevant to his crime, his background, his character or his life.”

In its motion, the defense says last month’s deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas “has opened old wounds for the Broward County community and has heightened anxiety for Broward students and parents.”

(Read the motion filed on Friday below.)

The motion says that based on publicity, the parallels drawn between Parkland and two potential jurors who “indicated that their ability to be fair and impartial has been affected by the Uvalde shooting . . .to make any attempt to conduct a fair, constitutional trial in the wake of the Uvalde and Buffalos tragedies would be futile.”

Since the motion was filed on Friday, there have already been other mass shootings over the weekend to include gun violence incidents in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The issue of the Texas school shooting’s impact to the Parkland death penalty case also came up one day after the shooting on May 25.

Below: Defense motion for judge to withdraw from the case:


About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Amanda Batchelor is the Digital Executive Producer for Local10.com.