Parkland school shooting case: Nikolas Cruz's defence suddenly rests after shouting match

Accused pleaded guilty to killing 14 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018

Court proceedings involving school shooter Nikolas Cruz are only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. AP
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Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz's lawyers suddenly rested their case on Wednesday after calling only a fraction of their expected witnesses — leading to a shouting match after the judge accused them of a lack of professionalism.

Cruz's lawyers had told the judge and prosecutors they would be calling 80 witnesses, but rested at the beginning of Wednesday's court session after calling about 25.

There were 11 days of defence evidence overall, the last two featuring experts who talked about how Cruz's birth mother's heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy might have affected the development of his brain.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to murdering 17 people at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — 14 pupils and three staff members — on February 14, 2018.

His trial, now ending its second month, is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. For a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous.

The sudden announcement by lead defence lawyer Melisa McNeill led to a heated exchange between her and Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who called the decision without warning to her or the prosecution “the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case”.

The 12-member jury and 10 alternates were not present but were lining up outside the courtroom to enter. The sudden announcement also meant prosecutors were not ready to start their rebuttal case.

Lead prosecutor Mike Satz threw his hands up when Ms Scherer asked if he could begin and, with a nervous laugh, said “no”.

Nikolas Cruz, left, speaks with lawyers after Judge Elizabeth Scherer asked him if he was sure he wanted to rest his case. AP

“We are waiting for 40 more [defence] witnesses,” Mr Satz said.

Mr Scherer then accused Cruz's lawyers of being inconsiderate to all involved, but especially the jurors for wasting their trip to court.

“To have 22 people march into court and be waiting as if it is some kind of game, I have never experienced such a level of unprofessionalism in my career,” Ms Scherer said, raising her voice.

Ms McNeill countered angrily and said “you are insulting me on the record in front of my client”, before Ms Scherer told her to stop.

Ms Scherer then laid into Ms McNeill, with whom she has had a testy relationship since pretrial hearings began more than three years ago.

“You have been insulting me the entire trial,” Ms Scherer told Ms 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.”

After his lawyers rested, Cruz told Ms Scherer he agreed with the decision.

“I think we are good,” he said.

Updated: September 28, 2022, 11:32 PM