Judge denies Parkland school shooter’s defense motion to disqualify herself

The motions that Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer considered on Monday were related to the defense’s effort to place limits on the prosecution’s rebuttal.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer moved forward with the Parkland school shooter’s death penalty trial on Monday and reaffirmed the prosecution’s rebuttal is scheduled to begin on Sept. 27.

After denying the defense’s motion to disqualify herself, Scherer started a hearing on pending motions with a discussion about several swastikas that Nikolas Cruz drew and displayed.

There was one on his backpack, on his boots, and on a detachable magazine that deputies said he used during the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“The defense has opened the door by admitting the records,” Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone said referring to Cruz’s school records and his use of the symbol of hate.

Records show Nikolas Cruz etched a swastika on a rifle and wrote an expletive and a racial slur on his backpack. A forensic psychologist said evidence of Cruz's behavior supports a mental health diagnosis. (Courtesy photos)

The motions Scherer considered on Monday were related to the defense’s effort to place limits on the prosecution’s rebuttal.

Chief Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill said the defense wants a mistrial if Scherer allows the prosecution to reference the swastikas, which she referred to as “prejudicial information.”

Chiappone said the prosecution team’s experts used the evidence on the swastikas to support an anti-social personality diagnosis, a mental condition with a long-term pattern of violating the rights of others without any remorse.

Scherer asked the prosecution to provide her with details about how they intend to present the evidence to the jury and she said the defense should expect her ruling in writing by Tuesday.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer holds up documents as she considers arguments from the defense that the jury should be prevented from seeing the swastikas on the pages (circled in red) during the penalty phase of the trial of Nikolas Cruz on Sept. 1, 2022. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool) (© South Florida Sun Sentinel 2022)

MOTION TO ‘DISQUALIFY’

The Parkland school shooter’s defense asked Scherer on Friday to disqualify herself from the case, according to a 22-page motion filed in Broward County court. Scherer denied the motion as “legally insufficient” and without “merit.”

The defense claimed the motion was filed in response to Cruz’s fears after Scherer admonished McNeill in court after she rested her case. The defense’s motion alleged the admonishment was “the zenith of the cumulative disdain the court has publicly expressed.”

Cruz’s statement: “I am seriously concerned about ... Scherer’s impartiality and ability to be neutral in a proceeding where my life is literally at stake.”

MOTION ON WITNESS

Cruz’s defense also filed a motion on Monday asking Scherer to not allow the prosecution to present the rebuttal testimony of Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist and expert on violence and video games.

Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis said the testimony was redundant and was not in direct response to the witnesses who mentioned Cruz’s interactions with video games.

Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus said the defense should not determine how the prosecution rebuts the case and should have no say on the number of witnesses.

“The defense wants to hide the defendant’s malingering,” Marcus said adding the defense’s argument was “ridiculous” and “it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Marcus said the defense intends to rebut Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones’s statement that fetal alcohol syndrome can cause someone to commit murder.

CASE STATUS

Scherer ended the hearing without ruling on the motions filed on Monday.

Prosecutors rested their case on Aug. 4, after calling 91 witnesses in 12 days, and the defense rested on Sept. 14 after presenting 26 witnesses in 11 days.

Scherer asked the jurors and the attorneys to return to court at 9 a.m. on Sept. 27 for the prosecution’s rebuttal. The attorneys agreed to be ready for closing statements after the first week of October.

The defense needs only one of the 12 jurors to oppose the death sentence. Without a unanimous jury vote, Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Watch the 6 p.m. report

The motions that Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer considered on Monday were related to the defense’s effort to place limits on the prosecution’s rebuttal.

Related documents

. (.)
. (.)

Ruling on the defense’s motion to disqualify

. (.)

Prosecution’s response to the defense’s motion to disqualify

Interactive graphic


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."

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.