Parkland shooting trial in limbo as judge seeks ‘creative’ ways to proceed

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School murder trial won’t be going in front of a jury anytime soon, a Broward judge said Monday.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who only months ago reluctantly agreed to postpone the trial of accused murderer Nikolas Cruz to an unspecified later date, lamented on Monday that the coronavirus crisis is likely to keep the case in limbo for the foreseeable future.

“We have to take it one day at a time, quite frankly. We’re not there yet. When we are, I don’t know,” she said. “If you have any creative suggestions as to how we can get this trial underway in a timely manner … ”

Prosecutors and defense lawyers who met Monday for a Zoom videoconference had no such suggestions, and it’s unlikely either side will try to experiment with established pretrial procedures in one of the most closely watched cases to come out of Broward in years.

Cruz, now 21, has confessed to entering Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018, and shooting 34 people, half of whom died. Since his arrest, defense lawyers have signaled a willingness to have Cruz plead guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.

Prosecutors have refused the offer, arguing that only a jury should decide whether to waive the death penalty in the emotionally charged case.

The standstill has led to Cruz’s lawyers doing everything legally required to provide him with a competent defense, including scheduling scores of witness interviews and having mental health experts evaluate the defendant.

Before the coronavirus health scare, defense lawyers wanted the Florida Supreme Court to rule on whether a log of Cruz’s visitors at the jail had to be turned over to prosecutors. Defense lawyers wanted their mental health experts’ names withheld from disclosure.

On March 11, justices let stand a lower court ruling that found the records had to be released. But before arrangements could be made to schedule in-person visits and professional evaluations, coronavirus all but shut down the justice system.

“We are ready to have them go in once everything’s safe,” defense lawyer Gabe Ermine told the judge.

Monday’s hearing was the first in the Cruz case since the quarantines began. The courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale remains largely closed, and criminal case hearings have all been conducted by videoconference.


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