Judge in Parkland massacre case urges defense lawyers to begin interviewing witnesses

Nikolas Cruz appears in court on Aug. 15, 2018. He is charged with gunning down 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Nikolas Cruz appears in court on Aug. 15, 2018. He is charged with gunning down 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Sun Sentinel file photo

As lawyers sniped at each other over evidence, the judge overseeing the case of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz on Wednesday urged defense lawyers to begin interviewing witnesses in the case.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, during a routine hearing, asked Cruz’s defense team to schedule 25 “depositions” of police witnesses in the next 45 days.

“Otherwise, this case is going to be pending for three years,” Scherer said. “Nobody wants that.”

“I have a feeling we’re going to be here longer than three years,” replied special assistant public defender David Frankel.

Cruz, 20, is facing the death penalty for killing 17 people and wounding 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14 in what was Florida’s worst school shooting. The massacre shocked the country, galvanized activists calling for stricter gun control and led to heightened security on how police and schools handled the shooting and Cruz during his troubled adolescence.

Wednesday’s hearing centered mostly on defense access to records and certain witnesses, not unusual in any criminal case, but magnified by the sheer size and scope of the Parkland massacre.

Cruz is represented by the Broward Public Defender’s Office, which represents clients who cannot afford their own lawyer. At least eight defense lawyers are helping on the case.

Much of what was discussed Wednesday revolved around defense lawyers seeking to depose police witnesses characterized as minor by the Broward State Attorney’s Office. Under Florida law, defense lawyers can conduct sworn deposition interviews with state witnesses who may be called at trial.

But more than 450 state witnesses have been labeled as minor, many of them officers who performed minimal tasks or simple security during the chaotic hours after the shooting, Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus told the judge.

Those witnesses won’t be called to testify and should not be deposed, Marcus said.

That led to testy words between the lawyers as Marcus accused the defense of stalling — and pointing out that not one deposition has been done.

“Nobody is going to tell me how to prepare my case. Nobody,” Frankel replied angrily.

Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeil said she is waiting on more evidence to be turned over to the legal team.

“There are thousands and thousands of pages of documents,” she said. “We are trying to do our jobs to effectively represent Mr. Cruz.”

In all, Cruz’s defense team asked for seven police witnesses to be “reclassified” as major witnesses. The judge declined on all but one — a Broward sheriff’s detective who helped the FBI interview several eyewitnesses.

The defense team also asked that the judge hold a hearing that would flesh out the role of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Public Safety Commission, which was created by the governor to explore how public institutions failed Cruz and how police responded to the tragedy.

The commission, which has subpoena power and is considered a law-enforcement agency, has been interviewing witnesses, holding regular meetings and will issue a report next year.

But defense lawyers are peeved that some of Cruz’s confidential medical records wound up in the hands of the commission, even though a court order instructed prosecutors not to turn them over to anyone. The State Attorney’s Office said it never gave the records to the commission, which got the records through the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Judge Scherer declined to rule on whether to hold a hearing on the issue. Lawyers will convene again Nov. 15 to again discuss scheduling.