FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) — Broward Judge Elizabeth Scherer announced a tentative trial date for January 2020 during Wednesday's status hearing for confessed Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz.
Defense attorneys raised concerns about the tentative early January trial date, saying they still have more than 300 key witnesses to interview and that some have canceled because they are still suffering from trauma stemming from the shooting.
"We cannot work harder on this case. But we don't want to create a facade for this community that it's going to be tried in January," said Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill. "There is still much work to be done."
But Judge Scherer said it's vital to keep the case on track and would not change the January date.
"I think it's too early to continue that trial date when we have six months," the judge said.
In another instance, Judge Scherer asked Cruz if he had been taking any medications which would impair his judgment during the hearing.
WEB EXTRA: WATCH THE HEARING IN ITS ENTIRETY
Cruz responded that he had not been taking anything that would affect his decision-making abilities.
In addition, Judge Scherer granted a request by Cruz' lawyers requesting he be allowed to skip some future court hearings. They say Cruz's continued presence in court attracts media attention that further traumatizes victims and the public as a whole.
In his most lengthy comments in court to date, Cruz told the judge he agrees with the decision. He still would likely appear at hearings on the most important issues, Scherer said.
"Do you understand there are certain things you could miss? You need to understand things could come up that affect your rights and you are waiving your appearance?" the judge asked.
"Yes," answered Cruz, shaggy-haired and dressed in red jail garb, adding a bit later. "I understand fully."
Broward State Attorney Mike Satz said he was concerned about excluding Cruz from many pretrial hearings even if they generally deal with purely legal issues. He indicated it could become fodder for an appeal later, such as a claim that Cruz wasn't informed about something with a major impact on his defense.
"We may be arguing legal matters but the defendant has a right to be here. I'm just trying to protect the record now and in the future," Satz said.
Cruz is charged with killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year.
Cruz, 20, faces the death penalty if convicted.
His lawyers say Cruz will plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence, but prosecutors want the case to go to trial so that a jury can decide.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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