Commission: Parkland Judge Should Be Reprimanded

Elizabeth Scherer showed bias toward prosecution in trial, allowed 'emotions to overcome' judgment
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 6, 2023 10:30 AM CDT
Commission: Parkland Judge Should Be Reprimanded
Judge Elizabeth Scherer sentences Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Nov. 2.   (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

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, and allowing "emotions to overcome her judgment," reports the AP. The Judicial Qualifications Commission found that Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated rules governing judicial conduct during the six-month trial last year that ended with Cruz receiving a life sentence for the 2018 murders of 14 students and three staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the jury couldn't unanimously agree he deserved a death sentence. The commission found Scherer "unduly chastised" lead public defender Melisa McNeill and her team, wrongly accused one Cruz lawyer of threatening her child, and improperly embraced prosecution members in court after the trial.

The commission, composed of 15 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 judgment," the commission said in its report to the Florida Supreme Court, which will make the final decision. Scherer announced last month she'd 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 47-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, didn't immediately respond to a call or email seeking 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.

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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 couldn't be fair to Tundidor.

(More Nikolas Cruz stories.)

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