Parkland shooter's defense files motion to disqualify judge from trial after heated exchange in courtroom

Attorneys for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz asked for the judge in his murder case to remove herself on Friday, two days after she scolded them when they abruptly rested their case after calling only a fraction of their expected witnesses.

The Broward Public Defender’s Office said in a motion that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer held a longstanding animosity toward lead defense lawyer Melisa McNeill.

The motion cited Florida's Judicial Code of Conduct that states a judge shall disqualify himself or herself if the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to instances where the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party’s lawyer. Defense attorneys said Scherer's repeated improper and unjustified attacks on the defense counsel undermine the public’s confidence in the judicial system and have also caused Cruz to fear that he will not receive a fair trial.

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The motion reads in part: "In essence, that the court has been feeling throughout this trial, and has now stated on the record, has corrupted this trial and should compel the granting of both a mistrial and a recusal so an unbiased jurist can properly try this case without the prejudice Mr. Cruz suffers in this proceeding."

In an affidavit, Cruz wrote that the judge's admonishments "cause me to reasonably fear that the Court is biased against my attorneys and me and I will not receive a fair and impartial trial."

Prosecutors said in a response Friday that Scherer has been respectful to both sides, releasing a statement saying, "Judicial comments, even of a critical or hostile nature, are not grounds for disqualification."

But they later issued a more detailed statement, accusing the defense of not being forthcoming about their plan to rest their case: "The defense team misled the court as to the presentation of their case for that day. Specifically, four members of the defense team, when directly asked about the next witness called, failed to be candid with the court. This adversely impacted the court schedule."

Cruz's attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would be calling 80 witnesses but surprisingly rested at the start of Wednesday's court session after calling only about 25 of them.

There were 11 days of defense testimony overall, the last two spotlighting experts about how his birth mother's heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy might have affected his brain's development and led to his murdering 17 people at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago.

The sudden announcement by lead attorney McNeill led to a heated exchange between her and Scherer, who called the decision without warning to her or the prosecution "the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case."

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"We're not playing chess," the judge said Wednesday, her voice rising in court. "You all knew about this and even if you didn't make your decision until this morning, to have 22 people, plus all the staff and every attorney march into court, be waiting as it's some kind of game – now I have to send them home." 

The 12-member jury and 10 alternates were not present but were lining up outside the courtroom to enter. The sudden announcement also meant prosecutors weren't ready to start their rebuttal case.

Scherer then accused Cruz's attorneys of being inconsiderate to all involved, but especially the jurors for wasting their trip to court.

When McNeill accused the judge of insulting her in front of her client, Scherer retorted, "You have been insulting me the entire trial. Blatantly taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don't like my rulings. So, quite frankly, this has been long overdue."  

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Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to murdering 14 Stoneman Douglas students and three staff members on Feb. 14, 2018. His trial, now ending its second month, is only to determine whether he is to be sentenced to death or life without parole. For a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous.

After his attorneys rested, Cruz told Scherer he agreed with the decision.

Prosecutors said they will need more than a week to prepare their rebuttal case. The trial is now tentatively scheduled to resume Sept. 27 and conclude the week of Oct. 10.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.