Nikolas Cruz, dressed in a standard orange jumpsuit, his hands clasped below a table, stared straight down into his lap Wednesday as his team of public defenders argued the admitted killer of 17 had no money to pay for a private attorney.
“As of April 4, 2018, Mr. Cruz has $353.43,” Assistant Public Defender Melissa McNeill told the judge.
The prosecution didn’t object.
But the claim contrasted sharply with earlier statements by Cruz and court records that show the Parkland teen could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The judge’s decision on whether Cruz can afford private counsel is significant in a case that could last years and is expected to be one of the most expensive in Broward County history.
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“They’re going to be here billing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars if you remove our office from the biggest case in America,” Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein implored the judge.
Cruz, 19, stands accused of killing 17 students and school administrators and injuring 15 others during a Valentine’s Day rampage with an assault rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
In an unusual move, Finkelstein said Cruz was willing to admit guilt and serve 17 consecutive life sentences, well before Broward State Attorney Michael Satz said his office would seek the death penalty. On Wednesday he upped the offer, saying Cruz was willing to serve 34 life sentences, before he was cut off by the judge and told the hearing was to determine whether his client was indigent.
The statement that Cruz was of meager means by his defense team Wednesday contrasted sharply with probate court records and statements Cruz made to the family he was living with at the time of the shooting.
After Cruz’s mother died in November and he moved in with another Parkland family, Cruz told them he stood to inherit $800,000 when he turned 22. His father Roger Cruz died in 2004 and probate records show his mother Lynda Cruz valued her husband’s estate at more than $1 million.
She later won a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctor who treated her husband and the family’s court-appointed attorney recommended that Cruz and his younger brother receive $175,000 to be kept in annuity until they were adults. She sold the family’s Parkland home in January 2017 for $575,000. She died in November.
If Broward Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Sherer finds that Cruz has the means, she could compel him to hire a private attorney instead of relying on the taxpayer-funded public defenders now representing him. If Cruz retains the public defenders and it’s determined at a later date that Cruz has money, the office could be reimbursed.
On Wednesday, McNeill laid out Cruz’s finances for the judge. She said he appears to be due $25,000 from a life insurance policy with Allstate and that up until two years ago he received an annuity of $3,333 that he shared with his mother. The attorney couldn’t say why the deposits stopped.
His account now at the Broward County Jail sits at $669.18. And up until Oct. 2017, McNeill told the judge, Cruz had $12,309.07 in a bank account at Wells Fargo. That account has dwindled to the $353.43, the amount her client is now worth, she told the judge.
When Judge Sherer asked McNeill about the life insurance settlement, she said Cruz had said he would rather donate it to an organization than pay for a private attorney.
Sherer said she would rule on Cruz’s financial status before the next hearing on Apr. 27, when she said she intends to pick a trial date.