Florida Supreme Court Reprimands Judge for Conduct During Parkland School Shooting Trial

Florida Supreme Court Reprimands Judge for Conduct During Parkland School Shooting Trial
Judge Elizabeth Scherer looks directly at the defendant as she sentences Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Nov. 2, 2022. (Amy Beth Bennett/Pool/Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—The Florida Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded the judge who oversaw the penalty trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz for showing bias toward the prosecution.

The unanimous decision Monday followed a June recommendation from the Judicial Qualifications Commission. That panel had found that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules governing judicial conduct during last year’s trial in her actions toward Mr. Cruz’s public defenders. The six-month trial ended with Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Elizabeth Scherer
Judge Elizabeth Scherer hugs Jennifer Guttenberg following the sentencing hearing for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Nov. 2, 2022. (Amy Beth Bennett/Pool/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP)
nikolas-cruz-in-court
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, seated with sentence mitigation specialist Kate O’Shea, (L), and Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeil, in court as verdicts are read in his trial in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 13, 2022. (Amy Beth Bennett/Pool/Getty Images)

A voicemail message was left at Scherer’s office Tuesday, and an email seeking comment was sent to the public defender’s office. Paula McMahon, spokesperson for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, said her office didn’t have comment.

Ms. Scherer retired from the bench at the end of last month. The 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 Mr. Cruz’s case shortly after the shooting.

Ms. 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 Mr. Cruz’s attorneys and others sometimes drew criticism from legal observers.

After sentencing Mr. Cruz, 24, to life without parole as required, Ms. 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, Ms. Scherer asked the prosecutor how he was holding up.

The court said Ms. Scherer’s actions gave at least the appearance that she could not be fair to Mr. Tundidor.

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