Judge Refuses to Relinquish Control of Parkland Shooting Case

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – The fate of Nikolas Cruz, who is charged with 17 counts of murder in connection with the Parkland school shooting, will remain in the hands of a Broward County judge after she rejected a public defender’s efforts to disqualify her from the case.

Calling the defense’s motion for disqualification “legally insufficient,” Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Monday nixed attempts to remove her from the murder case.

Cruz, 19, could face the death penalty if convicted of carrying out the Valentine’s Day massacre that left 17 dead at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, from which he was expelled last year.

The defense’s motion to remove Judge Scherer, filed Friday, was based on the claim that she made biased statements about whether certain court documents should remain sealed.

Court records indicate that at a preliminary hearing Feb. 19, Scherer openly disagreed with a fellow judge’s order to seal the documents. She later said, however, that the confidentiality order “has already been entered,” and “what is done is done,” according to a transcript.

The judge noted that the sealed pleading at the heart of the matter dealt solely with public defenders’ access to Cruz in jail, and that she believed the State neither would have submitted, nor had standing to submit, an objection to the seal.

Public defenders argued, in their attempt to knock Judge Scherer off the case, that her initial statements improperly foreclosed any possibility that the defense could pursue confidential ex parte hearings in the future.

They pointed to a moment when, according to the transcript, the judge said: “If there is a motion to keep something confidential, the motion, at the very least, is going to be heard by this court in the presence of all of the lawyers.”

The judge’s decision Monday to continue to preside over the case means the defense team will have to seek a writ of prohibition under another court division, or a similar legal measure, if they still want Scherer removed.

Meanwhile, various media outlets are seeking status as  intervenors for the purpose of maintaining broad public access to the court file in light of the early sealing of documents. A letter to Judge Scherer from  Shullman Fugate, a firm representing some of the media outlets, lamented that the process behind the documents’ sealing was conducted out of the public eye by the second judge.

“The absence of these materials from the public docket is very troubling,” the letter reads.

The intervenor pleading states: “Closure of criminal proceedings and sealing records are extreme remedies that should be ordered only when there is a manifestly overwhelming threat to a defendant’s right to receive a fair trial.”

Though the Broward state attorney’s office has said it is considering the death penalty for Cruz, it has not made a formal announcement of its intentions.

The victims of the attack were Cara Loughran, Alyssa Alhadeff, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schacter, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Scott Biegel, Carmen Schentrup, Luke Hoyer, Gina Montalto, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack,  Joaquin Oliver, Peter Wang, and Aaron Feis.

A hearing on the state’s request for DNA and hair samples from Cruz was abruptly canceled Tuesday without explanation.

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