Parkland shooter defense team denied pleas to remove themselves, and the judge, from case

(Video Credit: WPLG Local 10)

The trial for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is proceeding but it has been complicated by the defense attorney and the judge contentiously locking horns over jury selection.

On Monday, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill motioned to have Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer withdraw from the case over a dispute concerning the ongoing jury selection process, according to court documents.

The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School occurred four years ago in 2018, but the jury selection in the penalty phase has yet to be completed despite the fact that Cruz has pleaded guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the shooting of his classmates.

The confrontation played out in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, courtroom after attorney Casey Secor, a member of the defense team, was out sick allegedly due to COVID and is now in quarantine, according to WPLG.

The defense team was adamant about not proceeding with jury selection without Secor in attendance. But the judge wanted to press forward with asking potential jurors about their views concerning the death penalty.

Secor was retained specifically to assist in jury selection. He is the only other member on the defense team who has experience with death penalty trial cases.

Instead of proceeding, the defense team then asked Scherer if the court could spend Monday asking jurors about general hardships. The judge denied the request.

“I’m not comfortable going forward without him, judge,” McNeill stated, according to WPLG.

“Well, you’re going to have to,” Scherer responded. “Your client has the right to have a confident lawyer. Your client does not have the right to have every lawyer.”

McNeill was incensed by the judge not allowing her requests and stated that she was facing a decision of disobeying the court or moving forward without her full team. She then made a motion to withdraw the defense team from the case entirely. That motion was denied as well.

“Judge, at this time the defense would move to withdraw from the case of the state of Florida vs. Nikolas Cruz,” McNeill commented in court. “Right now, if I do not comply with the court’s order and do not protect Mr. Cruz’s constitutional rights to due process, I now have to consider whether or not my liberty is going to be at jeopardy or Mr. Cruz’s liberty is going to be at jeopardy.”

“I’m also going to have to consider whether or not my law license can be impacted, which would impact my ability to raise my children, feed my children and educate my children,” the attorney added.

Her protestations however did not move the judge and her motion was “respectfully” denied before the court was recessed.

Before calling that recess, the judge advised McNeill to consult the Florida Bar about the ethics of intentionally disobeying a court ruling, potentially laying the groundwork for an appellate issue of whether the killer was provided effective assistance of counsel, according to NBC Miami.

After a 40-minute recess, McNeill didn’t budge, saying, “I am not trying to interject ineffective assistance of counsel in this case. I am trying to prevent it from happening, but going forward without Mr. Secor, that would be ineffective.”

Prosecutor Carolyn McCann asked the judge when the court was reconvened if they could question potential jurors about hardships and not their death penalty views since it was late in the day. Scherer agreed despite her previous ruling.

McNeill then entered a “motion for disqualification” against Scherer, asking her to withdraw herself from the case according to court documents. The motion was denied.

FILE_0334 by David Dwork

Recent mass shootings are also worrying the defense team and they are requesting an additional day to question jurors’ impartiality.

“To continue this trial for a reasonable period of time to allow the wave of emotion surrounding the recent mass shootings to subside so that Mr. Cruz can be tried by a jury free from bias and prejudice against him for events that are not relevant to his crime, his background, his character or his life,” the motion read.

The Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas “has opened old wounds for the Broward County community and has heightened anxiety for Broward students and parents,” the defense asserted.

The judge wants 150 potential jurors selected for the next round of questioning. So far, only 35 have advanced. Approximately 95 individuals have been rejected.

The court is set to resume on Tuesday.

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