FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Parkland school shooter’s defense abruptly rested their case on Wednesday, the morning after their witness introduced a causal connection between his crimes and his biological mother’s alcohol consumption while pregnant.
Nikolas Cruz told the court that he would not be taking the stand and that he understood that by allowing his defense to rest his brother, Zachary Cruz, would not be testifying. The prosecution presented a list his defense had introduced with 2,000 potential witnesses.
“I don’t know who those people are,” Cruz said after hearing the list, later adding, “I think we are good ... I think we are fine.”
Broward School Board member Debbi Hixon, the widow of the slain Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School athletic director Chris Hixon, was in the courtroom when the defense moved the case forward sooner than anticipated.
“I am still, I think, in shock. I have no idea what that might mean for the case. If I was completely honest, I would say that I am glad,” Debra Hixon said. “It was very, very hard to sit through all of that ... I know that it’s a choice, but it’s a choice I made because I want to see this through to the end, so the idea that the end is closer is a relief.”
Prosecutors said they needed time to prepare for the next stage of the penalty phase. Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann said they would be ready for rebuttal by Sept. 27 and be ready for closing statements after the first week of October.
Chief Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill agreed with the new schedule. Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said she was concerned about potential delays.
“We have a pregnant juror, very pregnant,” Scherer told attorneys.
The defense needs only one of the 12 jurors to oppose the death sentence to keep Cruz away from execution. Scherer said the Broward Sheriff’s Office will be preparing to sequester the jury during deliberations in October.
Scherer gave the jury a preview.
“If your deliberations take longer than a day ... then you will be taken to a secure location by the Sheriff’s Office. You will feel like you are the president of the United States,” Scherer said adding, “Nobody knows where you are, except you and the Sheriff’s Office.”
Fred Guttenberg, the grieving father of slain 14-year-old Jaime, reacted to the developments on Twitter.
“I am in complete shock,” Guttenberg wrote. “That is all I will say about the trial at this time. Once the jury renders its verdict, I will have much to say,”
After prosecutors called 91 witnesses in 12 days and rested their case on Aug. 4, McNeill delivered her opening statement on Aug. 22 and said on Aug. 23 in court that her team had over 80 witnesses to call.
When McNeill said Wednesday morning that she was resting after only presenting 26 witnesses in 11 days, Scherer admonished the defense over “unprofessionalism” while handling the case.
“I have been practicing in this county for 22 years,” McNeill said.
Scherer interrupted her and said, “I don’t want to hear it!”
“Well, judge you are insulting me on the record in front of my client,” McNeill said. “I believe that I should be able to defend myself.”
The nearly three-minute exchange between Scherer and McNeill happened before the jury entered the courtroom, but with some of the relatives of the victims present.
“You have been insulting me the entire trial, so blatantly, taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, being late intentionally if you don’t like my rulings, so quite frankly this has been long overdue,” Scherer said.
After her abrupt announcement and after the prosecution and Scherer were certain Cruz was in agreement, McNeill rested the defense’s case in front of the jury.
The defense team’s first witnesses were Carolyn Deakins and Danielle Woodard, who both testified about Cruz’s biological mother’s drug and alcohol use while pregnant.
Their last witnesses were Paul Connor, a neuropsychologist who testified on Monday and Tuesday, and Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones, a world-renowned pediatrician who is known as the “Father of fetal alcohol syndrome” for coining the term in 1973.
The prosecution took issue with Connor and Jones not taking into account the evidence of the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including Cruz’s video confession and surveillance video of the crimes, when they made their assessments.
The defense decided not to call any more witnesses to go into Cruz’s time in high school or in jail.
Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in October 2021. Then the trial’s penalty phase moved forward with only two possible sentences: Life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Attorney Eric Schwartzreich, of Schwartzreich & Associates, P.A. in Fort Lauderdale, and Attorney David Weinstein, a partner with Jones Walker Waechter in Miami, are not working on Cruz’s case, but they have been following it closely.
“Surprise, surprise, surprise, right? The defense had a surprise party and on the guest list was not the state, nor the judge, so the judge was quite frankly, she was upset,” Schwartzreich said. “So do they have a legal obligation? Do they have to tell the state? Do they have to tell the judge? No!
“It was strategy. Now, it wasn’t professional, and the judge certainly did not like it.”
Weinstein, a former federal and state prosecutor, and Schwartzreich, a veteran who specializes in criminal defense, said the element of surprise was likely part of the defense’s strategy.
The prosecution’s strategy was to focus on Cruz’s crimes rather than the motive. Schwartzreich said every time the defense called a witness to describe Cruz’s impairments, prosecutors “did an effective job” of reminding they jury of his actions.
“The defense just needs one juror, just one juror that they can convince for life. Mr. Satz, for the state, kept getting up and bringing it back,” Schwartzreich said.
If after the closing statements, the jurors unanimously rule Cruz should get death, Weinstein said there is always the possibility that the sentence can be overturned during the appellate process.
“They are arguing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder as a mitigating circumstance so that is something that the jury is considering and if they reject it, then it was considered,” Weinstein said. “From there, it becomes an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment analysis.”
Weinstein also said the tense exchange between Scherer and McNeill could become useful for the defense even though it happened when the jury wasn’t in the courtroom.
“I may be something they can use later on down the road during an appeal to indicate to the court of appeals that the judge was somehow biased or prejudiced against defense counsel,” Weinstein said.
Schwartzreich and Weinstein said Scherer’s questioning of Cruz at the urging of the prosecution was also done in anticipation of Cruz’s grounds for an appeal.
“Down the road the defendant couldn’t claim that his lawyers were ineffective, that they hadn’t talked to him about which witnesses they were going to call, and that they hadn’t consulted with him about cutting short their presentation,” Weinstein said.
Schwartzreich and Weinstein both expect the prosecution to continue to discredit the defense witnesses’ connections to fetal alcohol exposure and the crimes.
Scherer dismissed the jurors shortly before 11:45 a.m., on Wednesday, and she asked them to return on Sept. 27. Scherer also asked the attorneys to return to court at 1:30 p.m., on Monday.
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