Public defender requests to withdraw from representing Nikolas Cruz

Howard Finkelstein says request comes after learning of hefty inheritance

By Janine Stanwood - Anchor/Reporter, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer, Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Public defenders for Nikolas Cruz unexpectedly asked to withdraw from the case Wednesday, saying the 20-year-old Parkland school shooter will soon inherit a hefty life insurance policy and no longer qualify for free legal representation.

The Broward County Public Defender's Office filed the notice late Wednesday, saying Cruz is set to receive more than $432,000 shortly from his late mother's life insurance policy. Under state law, the public defender can only represent defendants who cannot afford private attorneys.

Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder arising from the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The former student faces a possible death sentence.

Public defender Howard Finkelstein and his chief assistant, Gordon Weekes, said their office learned about the insurance policy this week. At a court hearing last year, their office had said the amount was likely to be about $30,000, too little to hire a private attorney.

But Cruz may not get the money. It is likely that the victims' families who are suing Cruz will claim the money should go to them, leaving judges to determine who ultimately receives it.

Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is presiding over the criminal case, has not set a hearing on the motion and might require them to stay on until that is settled.

Defense attorney Eric Schwartzreich, offering legal insight, said the chances of a January trial as hoped are "slim to none."

"Right now, for a lawyer to get up to speed and to go through hundreds of thousands of documents and become familiar with the case and to pour through all the videos and all of the evidence, this case could take years," he said.

The news was troubling to some parents of the victims.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old shooting victim Jaime Guttenberg, expressed his outrage on Twitter.

Andrew Pollack, the father of 18-year-old shooting victim Meadow Pollack, told Local 10 News he was concerned about the ramifications of the decision.

"I know the previous lawyers cared about the multitude of failures in Broward that enabled the killer," he said. "I hope the new defense team prioritizes exposing all the other culpable parties."

Meanwhile in civil court, Judge Patti Englander Henning is determining if Henderson Behavioral Health could be liable in a lawsuit filed by Pollack. The ruling will set an important precedent. 

Attorney David Brill, who is representing Pollack, told the judge Tuesday that mental health counselors at Henderson Behavioral Health must share the blame, because they knew Cruz was "a ticking time bomb." 

Brill said Cruz’s counselors encouraged his use of violent video games, a punching bag and target practice with non-lethal guns as part of an ineffective treatment. Henderson Behavioral Health attorney Joshua Walker said Brill's allegations are false.

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