Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s statement to police should be kept “under wraps” to not taint a potential jury pool, his lawyer told a court Monday as a judge continues to weigh whether to release it to the media and public.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Monday listened to another round of arguments from lawyers over whether the transcript and video of the hours-long interrogation should be released to the media. Scherer said she will issue a written order detailing her decision.
Cruz, 19, is facing the death penalty for killing 17 people, and wounding 17 more, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February — the worst school shooting in Florida history. As his brother watched from the gallery, Cruz — in a red jail jumpsuit — spent the entirety of Monday’s hearing with his forehead resting on the defendant’s table.
The carnage resulted in a wave of student activism against the proliferation of guns, a change in the state’s firearms law and scrutiny on law enforcement failures before and during the shooting.
Cruz confessed to homicide detectives, and the Broward Public Defender’s Office has said Cruz will plead guilty if prosecutors waive the death penalty. The State Attorney’s Office has pressed forward; a trial is likely years away, although Scherer on Monday proposed a September 2019 trial date, which defense lawyers said was too soon.
Under Florida law, much of the evidence in Cruz’s case is public record. In his case, the State Attorney’s Office has released police reports, witness statements and even cellphone videos made by Cruz in which he detailed his plans.
Much of Cruz’s hours-long interrogation with Broward detectives would have remained secret anyway — anything deemed “substance of a confession” is exempt from public release under Florida law.
But prosecutors planned to release portions of the video-recorded interview that did not entail the substance of his confession. Broward defense lawyers objected, saying any of the 200-page statement could unfairly sway potential jurors.
“There has never been a case in the state of Florida like this,” special assistant public defender David Frankel told the judge on Monday afternoon.
A lawyer for the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and other media groups pointed out that many other high-profile cases have managed to seat jurors without resorting to limiting public records. Attorney Dana McElroy said the magnitude of the Parkland case underscores the need to have as many details out there as possible.
“It’s the public’s right to understand how 17 people were murdered at this school,” she said.
Lawyers first made many of the same arguments during a hearing in June. At the time, the judge asked prosecutors to hold off on releasing any of Cruz’s statement, so she could review the transcript.
Also on Monday:
▪ The Public Defender’s Office asked the judge to block the release of a 70-page report made by the Broward school district detailing Cruz’s journey through the system. Judge Scherer, however, deferred to a civil court judge overseeing a media lawsuit against the school district over the release of records.
▪ Judge Scherer ordered that the case’s lead investigator, Broward Sheriff’s Detective John Curcio, finish and turn in his report so that defense lawyers can begin preparing their case. “There’s no reason why that report shouldn’t be done,” Scherer said.
▪ The judge set an Aug. 15 court hearing so that lawyers can detail the progress of the case, although the judge did not set a tentative 2019 trial date. Broward Public Defender Melissa McNeil pointed out that a similar case — that of a Colorado shooter who killed 12 people at a movie theater — took three years to go to trial.