Accused Mass Shooter’s Inheritance Spurs Public Defender Withdrawal

In this April 5, 2019, photo, Parkland school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz listens during a hearing at the Broward Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – Public defenders for the accused Parkland high school shooter asked a judge to let them withdraw from his case, saying his $432,000 inheritance disqualifies him from receiving the free legal counsel.

Broward County public defenders have filed more than 50 motions and expended hundreds of hours representing Nikolas Cruz since his arrest on capital murder charges for the Valentine’s Day 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

But on Wednesday afternoon, the attorneys said in a motion to withdraw that Cruz is no longer entitled to help from the public defender’s office because he is set to receive more than $432,000 from his adoptive mother Lynda’s MetLife insurance policy. The life insurance proceeds will void his status as an indigent man, they say.

Lynda, who adopted Cruz from birth, died in November 2017, about three months before the massacre.

Her house in the upscale suburban community of Parkland had been visited frequently by police for domestic disturbances involving the son. In one incident, she told police a then-14-year-old Cruz hit her with a vacuum cleaner hose. A month later, the mother summoned deputies again, saying Cruz threw her against a wall after she took away his Xbox gaming system.

Cruz, 20, is facing the death penalty for charges of killing 14 students and three school staff members at Stoneman Douglas, where he had been booted for disciplinary issues, fighting and threatening behavior.

Police interrogation footage appears to show him confessing to the shooting. Cellphone video has emerged as well, in which he recorded himself discussing plans to attack the school before proclaiming, “With the power of my AR-15, you will all know who I am.”

His public defender has offered to change his not-guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence.

At the outset of the criminal case, Cruz had filled out an indigent application claiming he had $700 in cash, $2,200 in investments and that he expected to receive only $25,000 in life insurance proceeds. His listed assets were just above the $25,000 statutory flat-fee base for public defenders in capital murder cases.

Based on the assets listed, the judge ruled in April 2018 that paying private counsel would be a financial hardship, and that Cruz was entitled to a public defender.

The newly filed court documents cite life insurance proceeds in excess of $864,000, half of which is set to go to Cruz.

“The Law Office of the Public Defender is statutorily prohibited from representing a non-indigent defendant,” a motion to withdraw reads.

An avalanche of new lawsuits were filed by victims’ families in April over the shooting, some of which name Cruz and Lynda’s estate as defendants.

Given the volume of the claims, Cruz’s purported life insurance money would be a drop in the bucket as far as covering victim medical expenses and wrongful death damages.

Victims and their families also face challenges in recovering damages due to sovereign immunity caps in Florida. The caps generally put hard limits on government entities’ financial liability in civil cases unless the state legislature passes a measure to appropriate additional money to cover the claims.

Among other defendants, the lawsuits demand damages from now-resigned school deputy Scot Peterson, for taking a defensive position outside instead of confronting the attacker inside the building where the massacre was taking place. Peterson for his part claims he was following department protocol by seeking cover, given that he believed the shooter was outside.

The victims’ families also want Cruz’s counselors at Henderson Behavioral Health held liable for not subjecting him to involuntary commitment proceedings in light of his alleged abuse of his mom, and reports that he drank gasoline and drew a swastika on his backpack. The proceedings could have rendered Cruz “unable to legally purchase the gun he used in the tragedy,” the lawsuits say.

Cruz had been reported to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office at least twice in the two years before the shooting, over concerns that he was plotting a massacre.

On Nov. 30, 2017, the sheriff’s office received a call advising that Cruz was collecting guns and contemplating committing a mass shooting, office records state. During a post-shooting inquiry, a deputy purportedly said that he had referred the caller to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, as Cruz had moved out of Broward County following his mother’s death.

Earlier, in February 2016, the sheriff’s office received a warning from a neighbor’s son that Cruz planned to shoot up a school and had posted pictures of himself with guns on his Instagram social media account. A deputy responded and relayed information to Stoneman Douglas, though no legal action was taken.

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