Florida judge set to be reprimanded for conduct in Parkland school shooting trial

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida judge who oversaw the trial of Parkland school gunman Nikolas Cruz is set to be publicly reprimanded for showing bias towards the prosecution, failing to reduce the charges. “vitriol statements” addressed to Cruz’s lawyers by the families of the victims and sometimes letting “his emotions prevail over his judgment”, concluded a state commission on Monday.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission found that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules governing judicial conduct during last year’s trial in her actions against Cruz’s public defenders. The six-month trial ended with Cruz being sentenced to life for the 2018 murders of 14 students and three staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the jury could not agree to the unanimity that he deserved a death sentence.

The 15-member commission found that Scherer “unduly berated” leading public defender Melisa McNeill and her team, falsely accused a Cruz lawyer of threatening her child, and improperly kissed members of the prosecution in the courtroom after the conclusion of the trial.

The commission, made up of judges, lawyers and citizens, acknowledged that “the global publicity surrounding the case has created stress and tension for all involved”.

Regardless, the commission said, judges are expected to “ensure due process, order and decorum, and always act with dignity and respect to promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

“In limited instances during this unique and lengthy case, Judge Scherer allowed her emotions to override her judgment,” the commission said in its report to the Florida Supreme Court, which will make the final decision. .

Scherer announced last month that she would retire from the bench on June 30. The commission said the resignation was not part of any agreement reached with the judge. The commission’s report says that Scherer admitted during his testimony that his conduct during the trial “falls short” of what is expected of judges and that “his treatment of team members defense was sometimes not patient, dignified or courteous”.

Scherer, a 46-year-old former prosecutor, was appointed to the bench in 2012 and the Cruz case was her first capital murder trial. The Broward County computer system randomly assigned Cruz’s case to him shortly after the shooting.

His attorney, Thomas Panza, did not immediately respond to a call or email seeking comment.

Broward County public defender Gordon Weekes declined to comment.

Scherer’s handling of the case drew widespread praise from parents and spouses of the victims, who said she treated them professionally and kindly, but her clashes with Cruz’s attorneys and others have sometimes attracted criticism from legal observers.

Before the trial, she criticized two reporters from the Sun Sentinel newspaper for publishing a sealed school file of Cruz that they legally obtained. She threatened to tell the newspaper what it could and could not print, but never did; legal experts say such a decision would have been unconstitutional.

Scherer also had frequent heated arguments with McNeill. These first boiled over when McNeill and his team suddenly closed their case after calling only a small fraction of their expected witnesses. Scherer called it “the most unprofessional and unwarranted way to try a case,” although the defense is under no obligation to call all of its witnesses or announce its plans in advance.

McNeill angrily replied, “You are officially insulting me in front of my client”, before Scherer told him to stop. She then lay inside her.

“You insulted me the whole trial,” Scherer barked at McNeill. “Arguing with me, storming out, showing up late on purpose if you don’t like my decisions. So, quite frankly, this was long overdue. So please sit down.

The two men clashed again at Cruz’s November sentencing hearing over verbal attacks that some of the victims’ family members leveled at the defense team during their statements in court. Scherer refused to restrict statements and expelled one of McNeill’s aides, David Wheeler, after he misinterpreted one of his comments as a threat against his daughter.

After sentencing 24-year-old Cruz to life without parole as required, Scherer left the bench and hugged members of the prosecution and families of the victims. She told the commission that she had offered to embrace the defense team as well.

That action led the Supreme Court in April to remove her from overseeing the post-conviction motions of another defendant, Randy Tundidor, who was sentenced to death for murder in the 2019 murder of his landlord. prosecutors in that case had also been on Team Cruz, and during a hearing in the Tundidor case a few days after Cruz’s sentencing, Scherer asked the prosecutor how he was holding up.

The court said Scherer’s actions at least gave the appearance that she could not be fair to Tundidor.

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