FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Parkland school shooter’s defense warned the judge and the prosecution on Thursday that they have grounds to put a stop to the trial’s death penalty phase.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill accused a prosecutor in open court of joining a conference call with a witness that she believes needs to be investigated for witness tampering and misconduct.
McNeill said John Vesey, the former principal of Westglades Middle School, received a call from his “personal friend” Attorney Christopher Whitelock, who represents several Broward County Public Schools employees, and introduced Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus to the call.
“It was an incredibly uncomfortable phone call. To this hour, I don’t understand why that even occurred,” Vesey later said during his testimony on Thursday afternoon.
McNeill told Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that the defense needs to file a motion to “disqualify or to prohibit the imposition” of the death penalty or the state from seeking the death penalty based on prosecutorial misconduct.
Whitelock and Marcus “had concerns about his testimony today and how it could impact the district and how it could impact the individuals who work for the district,” McNeill said adding Vesey told the defense he felt “like they were trying to prohibit him from testifying.”
McNeill said the defense also needs to prepare to seek remedies and to find an outside prosecutor’s office to investigate if other defense witnesses received similar calls. McNeill requested a 24-hour recess. When Scherer denied her request because she wanted to continue with witness testimony and to handle the matter later, McNeill appeared incensed.
“I’m sorry. I would assume that you would be outraged by this conduct like the defense is and we just need an opportunity to review all of the information,” McNeill told Scherer.
Marcus calmly admitted to the phone call, but not to the alleged nature of it.
“This is totally not true. I did have a conversation. I called his lawyer, asked him if I could speak to his client and we spoke about what his testimony would be,” Marcus said. “Mr. Whitelock heard the conversation. I have every confidence that Mr. Whitelock would think that it was an appropriate conversation. It was merely, ‘What are you going to testify to?’ and some questions about his role as principal.
“This is absolutely untrue.”
Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone also raised the allegation on the record. Scherer allowed her to question Vesey about it during his testimony.
“You are aware that it is permissible for lawyers to speak with witnesses right?”
Vesey said he did.
Chiappone: “You testified that you were concerned on this morning, at your testimony, or whoever was on the phone, that your testimony would negatively affect individuals within the Broward County school district? But that person was just Mr. Whitelock, correct?” and later “Mr. Whitelock was worried, he was the one concerned about your testimony?”
Vesey: “He voiced that, yes. He did. He was the one who voiced that.”
Chiappone: “OK, not Mr. Marcus?”
While on the witness stand on Thursday, Vesey told Curtis that he was not deposed before his testimony in court.
Attorney David S. Weinstein, a partner at Jones Walker LLP, is not involved in the case, but he has been following it closely, said that as Chiappone said in court, it is proper for a lawyer to speak with a witness before testimony.
“Given the time constraints of the penalty phase trial, the state chose not to depose this witness and instead to speak with the witness, and instead to speak with the witness through his lawyer prior to his testimony,” Weinstein said.
McNeill submitted an affidavit signed by Vesey describing his perception of the Friday morning call with Marcus and Whitelock.
On Tuesday, Whitelock released a statement to Local 10 News Reporter Christina Vazquez about the phone call saying there was nothing wrong with the phone call.
“Mr. Marcus and/or myself didn’t say anything inappropriate during the communications. Simply asking stuff like what, if anything, Mr. Vesey knew about the case is very standard trial work and Mr. Marcus was simply doing his job. And respectfully, Mr. Marcus is not a friend of mine,” Whitelock said. “Also, my office has cooperated with both the prosecutor as well as the defense on this case without a single incident or complaint.”
Watch a video of Vesey’s testimony
Related public record