Defense attorneys in Florida school shooting try to walk away

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Public defenders representing Florida school gunman Nikolas Cruz attempted to withdraw from his death penalty trial Monday after the judge ordered them to proceed with jury selection even though a member of their five-member team is sick with COVID-19.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer denied a motion to dismiss Cruz’s lead attorney, Melisa McNeill, who said she could return Monday afternoon with a motion to dismiss the trial judge as unfair.

The defense also filed a motion to delay Cruz’s trial indefinitely, saying the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead, stirred emotions in Broward County over the murder. of 17 people by Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland on February 14, 2018. They said the shooting of him is currently preventing him from getting a fair trial. Scherer did not vote on this motion.

Judge Scherer and McNeill got into a heated argument on Monday over the judge’s insistence that jury selection go ahead without the presence of Casey Secor, a South Carolina death penalty defense expert who is assisting McNeill. Scherer said Secor could watch the proceedings on a video link and communicate with McNeill by phone or text.

Scherer accused McNeill of trying to intentionally provide ineffective advice to Cruz by saying his team would not participate without Secor. At one point, Scherer adjourned the hearing, telling McNeill to consult with the Florida Bar about the penalties she could face if she and her team refused to participate. She said that four lawyers present for Cruz in the courtroom was enough.

“We’re moving forward,” Scherer said.

But McNeill told the judge she was the one creating the grounds for a successful appeal by an ineffective defense attorney by insisting that jury selection go ahead without Secor, which McNeill says owns special expertise in this area. McNeill said more than half of successful death penalty appeals involved issues during jury selection. If Cruz is sentenced to death, a successful appeal would result in a retrial several years from now.

“These families (of the victims) don’t need to come back to this courtroom,” McNeill said. She also said that Scherer’s threat to discipline her created a conflict between her obligation to provide Cruz with the best possible defense and her obligation to her career and family not to jeopardize her law degree.

Prosecutors found themselves in the middle. They initially agreed with the defense to delay jury selection until Secor returned, but then told the judge that she would be on solid legal footing if she decided to move forward without Secor. Scherer then adjourned the court until Monday afternoon.

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