FORT LAUDERDALE — The Florida judge who oversaw the penalty trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz should be publicly reprimanded for showing bias toward the prosecution, failing to curtail “vitriolic statements” directed at Cruz’s attorneys by the victims’ families and sometimes allowing “her emotions to overcome her judgement,” a state commission concluded Monday.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission found that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules governing judicial conduct during last year’s trial in her actions toward Cruz’s public defenders. The six-month trial ended with Cruz receiving a life sentence for the 2018 murder of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the jury could not unanimously agree that he deserved a death sentence.
The 15-member commission found that Scherer “unduly chastised” lead public defender Melisa McNeill and her team, wrongly accused one Cruz attorney of threatening her child, and improperly embraced members of the prosecution in the courtroom after the trial’s conclusion.
The commission, composed of judges, lawyers and citizens, acknowledged that “the worldwide publicity surrounding the case created stress and tension for all participants.”
Regardless, the commission said, judges are expected to “ensure due process, order and decorum, and act always with dignity and respect to promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
“In limited instances during this unique and lengthy case, Judge Scherer allowed her emotions to overcome her judgement,” the commission said in its report to the Florida Supreme Court, which will make the final decision.
Scherer announced last month that she would be retiring from the bench on June 30. The commission said the resignation was not part of any deal struck with the judge. The commission report said that Scherer acknowledged during her testimony that her conduct during the trial “fell short” of what’s expected of judges and that “her treatment of members of the defense team was at times not patient, dignified or courteous.”
Scherer, a 46-year-old former prosecutor, was appointed to the bench in 2012 and the Cruz case was her first capital murder trial. Broward County’s computerized system randomly assigned her Cruz’s case shortly after the shooting.
Her attorney, Thomas Panza, did not immediately respond to a call or email seeking comment.
Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes declined comment.
Scherer’s handling of the case drew frequent praise from the parents and spouses of the victims, who said she treated them with professionalism and kindness, but her clashes with Cruz’s attorneys and others sometimes drew criticism from legal observers.
Before the trial she criticized two reporters from the Sun Sentinel newspaper for publishing a sealed Cruz educational record that they obtained legally. She threatened to tell the paper what it could and couldn’t print, but never did; legal experts say such a move would have been unconstitutional.
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Scherer also had frequent heated arguments with McNeill. Those boiled over for the first time when McNeill and her team suddenly rested their case after calling only a small fraction of their expected witnesses. Scherer called it “the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case,” though the defense has no obligation to call all of its witnesses or announce its plans in advance.
McNeill countered angrily, “You are insulting me on the record in front of my client,” before Scherer told her to stop. She then laid into her.
“You’ve been insulting me the entire trial,” Scherer barked at McNeill. “Arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don’t like my rulings. So, quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated.”
The two clashed again during Cruz’s sentencing hearing in November over the verbal attacks some victims’ family members made against the defense team during their courtroom statements. Scherer refused to curtail the statements and ejected one of McNeill’s assistants, David Wheeler, after she wrongly interpreted one of his comments as a threat against her daughter.
After sentencing Cruz, 24, to life without parole as required, Scherer left the bench and hugged members of the prosecution and the victims’ families. She told the commission she offered to also hug the defense team.
That action led the Supreme Court in April to remove her from overseeing post-conviction motions of another defendant, Randy Tundidor, who was sentenced to death for murder in the 2019 killing of his landlord. One of the prosecutors in that case had also been on the Cruz team, and during a hearing in the Tundidor case a few days after the Cruz sentencing, Scherer asked the prosecutor how he was holding up.
The court said Scherer’s actions gave at least the appearance that she could not be fair to Tundidor.
By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press.