Defense lawyers for Nikolas Cruz want to boot Broward State Attorney Mike Satz off the case for refusing to even entertain waiving the death penalty — and because they say he called the Parkland school shooter “evil; worse than Ted Bundy.”
Cruz’s lawyers, in a motion filed recently, argue that Satz and his office should be disqualified from the case because they won’t consider “mitigation,” or details of Cruz’s life story that might sway prosecutors to drop the death penalty as a possible punishment for fatally shooting 17 students and staffers in February 2018.
“The State Attorney’s determination that Mr. Cruz is evil does not appear to be a reasoned decision but instead a decision based on caprice and emotion,” the Broward Public Defender’s office wrote in a motion to disqualify Satz and his entire office from the case.
No hearing date has been set for Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to consider the request. If granted, prosecutors from another county would have to be appointed to handle the case.
Cruz has a routine court hearing on Monday, although it was unclear if Judge Scherer would entertain the request then. The State Attorney’s Office plans to issue a written response. “We will be opposing the motion, but reserve further comment for the courtroom and court documents,” according to a State Attorney’s spokeswoman.
Cruz, now 20, is accused of fatally shooting 17 people, and wounding 17 more, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. It was the worst school shooting in Florida history, and sparked a wave of student activism, renewed political tension over gun control and forced the normally firearm-friendly Florida Legislature to pass a law tightening access to the weapons.
After his arrest blocks from the school that day, few doubted that Cruz would face the death penalty.
The murder spree was well-orchestrated — Cruz made cellphone videos detailing his plans, took an Uber to the school and methodically went up and down the halls mowing down students and staff with an AR-15. Cruz, a former student with a long history of violence toward animals and threats of violence against other young people, also confessed to the murders, according to the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
With plenty of eyewitnesses who knew Cruz, surveillance videos and the confession, there’s never been any question over whether he was the gunman. An insanity defense is also a challenge — defense lawyers would have to prove he didn’t know right from wrong, always a tough sell to jurors.
It was against that backdrop that Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, in a rare move, immediately announced Cruz would plead guilty if Satz agreed to allow a sentence of life in prison. Satz, in a statement after the arrest, said: “This certainly is the type of case the death penalty was designed for. This was a highly calculated and premeditated murder of 17 people and the attempted murder of everyone in that school.”
After a grand jury indicted Cruz for 17 counts of first-degree murder, prosecutors as expected announced they would seek the death penalty.
In capital litigation, defense lawyers are allowed to present “mitigation,” in this case Cruz’s long history of mental health trouble, missed warning signs about his potential for violence and tumultuous family life. If prosecutors decide the mitigation isn’t enough to warrant waiving the death penalty, jurors can hear that mitigation — and decide for themselves if execution is the proper punishment.
Satz, who is retiring after more than four decades in the elected office, is prosecuting the case himself along with a team of high-level prosecutors. According to Cruz’s motion, defense attorney Melisa McNeill in February asked Satz about revisiting the decision to seek death.
The state attorney, according to the defense, replied “that there is no mitigating evidence he would consider and that he will not waive the death penalty in this case. Satz explained that he believes Mr. Cruz is ‘evil; worse than Ted Bundy,’” a reference to the notorious serial killer who was executed in Florida in 1989.
“Satz’s refusal to even consider mitigation evidence” violates “Mr. Cruz’s due process rights and his right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment,” the defense said in its 15-page request.
The motion also said Satz’s refusal to entertain a life prison sentence is an “abuse of Satz’s prosecutorial discretion, and violates the ethical rules governing prosecutors.” The motion also criticizes Satz’s decision to bring back four high-ranking prosecutors, who are retired or are retiring, on a contract basis to help with the Parkland case.