Florida judge must be reprimanded for his conduct during Parkland school shooting trial

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida judge who oversaw the criminal trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz should be publicly reprimanded for showing bias toward the prosecution by failing to reduce the “ vitriolic statements” addressed to Cruz’s lawyers by the families of the victims. and sometimes allowing “their emotions of him to overcome his judgment,” a state commission concluded Monday.

The Commission on Judicial Qualifications found that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules governing judicial conduct during last year’s trial in her actions toward Cruz’s public defenders. The six-month trial ended with Cruz receiving life in prison for the 2018 murder of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the jury could not unanimously agree that she deserved a death sentence.

The 15-member commission found that Scherer “improperly reprimanded” lead public defender Melisa McNeill and her team, wrongly accused a Cruz attorney of threatening her son, and improperly hugged members of the prosecution in the courtroom afterward. of the conclusion of the trial.

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

Regardless, the commission said, judges are expected to “guarantee 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 protracted case, Judge Scherer allowed her emotions to get the better of her judgment,” the commission said in its report to the Florida Supreme Court, which will make the final decision.

Scherer announced last month that he 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 acknowledged during his testimony that his conduct during the trial “did not measure up” to what was expected of judges and that “his treatment of defense team members was sometimes not patient.” , dignified or courteous”.

Scherer, a 46-year-old former prosecutor, was appointed as a judge in 2012 and the Cruz case was her first capital murder trial. Broward County’s computer system randomly assigned Cruz’s case 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 frequent praise from the victims’ parents and spouses, who said he treated them with professionalism and kindness, but his clashes with attorneys for Cruz and others sometimes drew criticism from legal observers.

Before the trial, he criticized two reporters for the Sun Sentinel newspaper for publishing a sealed educational record of Cruz that they obtained legally. He threatened to tell the newspaper what he could and could not publish, but never did; legal experts say such a move would have been unconstitutional.

Scherer also had frequent heated arguments with McNeill. Those first boiled over when McNeill and his team suddenly rested their case after calling only a small fraction of the expected witnesses. Scherer called it “the most unnecessary and unprofessional way to try a case,” even though the defense is not required to call all its witnesses or announce its plans in advance.

McNeill angrily responded, “You’re insulting me at the register in front of my client,” before Scherer told him to stop. Then he lay on her.

“You’ve been insulting me throughout the trial,” Scherer barked at McNeill. “Arguing with me, storming out, intentionally being late if you don’t like my decisions. So, frankly, this is long overdue. So please sit down.”

The two clashed again during Cruz’s sentencing hearing in November over verbal attacks some of the victims’ family members made against the defense team during their courtroom statements. Scherer refused to restrict the statements and fired one of McNeill’s aides, David Wheeler, after she misinterpreted one of her comments as a threat against her daughter.

After sentencing Cruz, 24, to life in prison without parole as required, Scherer left the bank and hugged members of the prosecution and the families of the victims. She told the commission that she offered to hug the defense team as well.

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

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