The death-penalty trial for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz will start in January 2020, a Broward judge ruled Thursday, drawing immediate protests from defense lawyers who believe they won’t be ready in time.
Cruz, who fatally shot 17 students and staffers and wounded 17 more, faces possible execution if convicted in what was Florida’s worst mass school shooting. The trial would start less than two years after Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, took an Uber to the campus and methodically gunned down his victims with an AR-15 rifle.
Cruz, now 20, was arrested blocks away from the school and has been jailed ever since. The shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, led to a wave of gun control activism, and even a Florida law tightening restrictions on firearms.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer issued her formal scheduling order on Thursday. Jury selection will begin Jan. 27, 2020, and the trial will be moved to a bigger courtroom, she wrote.
In Florida, it’s normal for murder cases — death penalty or not — to drag on for years as defense lawyers interview witnesses in depositions, pore over evidence and haggle over legal issues with prosecutors.
In Cruz’s case, there are hundreds of witnesses and thousands of pieces of evidence. While prosecutors have signaled in court hearings they’re fine with a January 2020 trial, the Broward Public Defender’s Office has long protested that there won’t be enough time to prepare its case.
“Considering the number of cases in this county that are far older and far less complex, it is troubling that the court would pursue such an aggressive timeline,” Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes said on Thursday. “This case has not matured to the level of being trial ready.”
Death penalty cases also take longer because defense lawyers must prepare for a “penalty phase” — the sentencing portion of the trial in which the jury, if it convicts the defendant, must decide whether execution is the appropriate punishment.
Cruz’s defense lawyers are still fighting a legal battle over whether they have to disclose the identity of mental-health experts who might visit Cruz in jail. One or more of those possible experts could testify at a trial about Cruz’s troubled childhood and mental-health woes in an effort to sway jurors to spare his life.
In neighboring Miami-Dade County, high-profile capital cases usually drag on for years. For example, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, who face the death penalty on allegations they tortured and murdered their adopted daughter, have been awaiting trial since 2011.
Weekes suggested that Scherer’s decision may be “pure politics.”
The trial date would afford Broward State Attorney Mike Satz time to try the case himself. He has decided to not run for reelection after more than four decades — but he would not vacate his seat after an August 2020 election.
Judge Scherer, if she draws an opponent, would also be up for election in the fall of 2020.
Cruz’s defense team has readily acknowledged that he was to blame for the shooting. In the immediate aftermath of the killings, lawyers offered to have Cruz quickly accept a life prison sentence. Satz declined.