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Judge Elizabeth Scherer from Parkland shooter trial speaks publicly for first time since resigning after controversial case

CBS News Miami Exclusive: Judge in Parkland school shooting trial breaks her silence
CBS News Miami Exclusive: Judge in Parkland school shooting trial breaks her silence 08:29

FORT LAUDERDALE -- The former judge who presided over the death penalty trial for the Parkland school shooter is breaking her silence.

She's talking about the historic case and the backlash surrounding it for the first time.

Elizabeth Scherer, who served as a Broward County Circuit Court judge for a decade, is now working at the family law firm founded by her father nearly 50 years ago.

Judge Scherer leaves the Broward bench to practice law

She practices civil law, a stark contrast from when she was thrust in the national spotlight as presiding judge in the Parkland trial.

Convicted shooter Nikolas Cruz was charged with the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 that killed17 people and injured 17 others. 

It remains one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

The very next day, then Judge Scherer was randomly assigned to his death penalty trial.

"I was going through my docket and my secretary came in," Scherer recalled. "And she was like in a full panic."

School Shooting Florida
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks during a hearing in the penalty phase of the convicted shooter on Oct. 10, 2022. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool) Amy Beth Bennett / AP

Scherer said "it was a big shock" but in some ways not so much.

"I can't explain it," she said. "I had a feeling that case was coming to me."

The case lasted five years and with it came cameras.

The news media captured the courtroom drama in real time before a nationwide audience that watched the proceedings unfold live, including on 

Courtroom clashes during Parkland school shooter trial

The trial included several controversial moments that polarized trial watchers.

"Well any time I had to, I guess reprimand or censor an attorney, it was outside the presence of the jury," Scherer said.

But jurors did see some heated exchanges between the judge and public defender Melissa McNeil. When CBS News Miami's Betty Nguyen asked about some of the verbal sparring, Scherer asked for a moment to collect her thoughts.

"I just need like a minute to take a drink and to think about it," Scherer said, adding that "there was a lot that was going on during that trial that I felt was extremely unprofessional and disrespectful. Not only to the court but to the families. As a judge, there's only certain tools that you have to address that type of disrespect."

"And . . . did I handle it perfectly? Perhaps not. But I, but I did what I thought was needed to be done in order to maintain decorum and to keep that trial moving in a way that was fair to all parties," Scherer said.

The former judge says her initial hesitation to discuss certain details stems from a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court; and an acknowledgement that her conduct during the trial was at times not "patient, dignified or courteous."

But critics argue some of the actions by the defense team was shocking and prompted this reaction from the judge:

"When these people are upset about specific things that have gone on at that table, like shooting the middle finger up at this court and laughing and joking, Ms. McNeil be quiet."

Then, there was another polarizing moment when the judge excused one of the attorneys over what Scherer perceived to be a threat made against her own family.

"To try to threaten my children and bring up my children is inappropriate," Scherer said. "So I'm very protective of my daughter and looking back, I, I may have overreacted. In other words, maybe that's not what the attorney meant, but I don't feel it's ever, ever appropriate to look at a judge and say, 'Well, if this was your kid.' I mean that is just so far out of line that I will tell you he found the right button to push."

Exclusive: Former Judge Elizabeth Scherer from Parkland shooter trial speaks publicly for first time 07:29

Scherer admits to overreacting during that one exchange.

"I try to maintain a level of, you know, calmness and take a deep breath when somebody's trying to sort of bait me (by) bringing up my daughter," she said. "You know I did lose my temper, and just to put it in context, although I don't know that that's what was meant by it."

But with time has come perspective.

"But long story short, do I think that's what he meant?" she said. "Probably not. Do I think that he was inappropriate? Absolutely." 

School Shooting-Florida
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks sharply calling lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill "unprofessional" after McNeill announced the defense's intention to rest their case on Sept. 14, 2022.  Amy Beth Bennett / AP

Judge Elizabeth Scherer hangs up her robe

Scherer is now working at the Fort Lauderdale law firm her father began nearly 50 years ago.

Her father, William Scherer, is a powerhouse attorney who represented former President George W. Bush during his historic recount in Broward County during the 2000 election.

"I wanted my kids to all be lawyers and they are," he said. "So my dream has come true. It took 50 years of practice for me to get all my kids in the firm and here they are."

But initially the family was ready to fiercely defend the daughter and sister they affectionately call Liz from the fallout surrounding the Parkland school shooting trial.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission determined last June that Judge Scherer at times gave the appearance of partiality.

"My dad also wanted me to contest it, but as you can imagine a trial would have required witnesses," she recalls. "And who would the witnesses have been? These family members who were there to experience and witness a lot of what went on. And to me, it was . . . it was not an option."

Exclusive: Parkland shooting Judge Elizabeth Scherer on life after the trial - Pt. 3 05:20

The former judge said she did not want the victims and family members to relive the trial all over again. So she resigned and is now practicing civil law.

Asked if she feels like she is starting over, Scherer said, "Yes, absolutely. Especially when they tell me, 'You're assigned to this case now' and I go, 'OK, what am I first chair?' No. Sixth. And I'm saying I'm used to calling the shots (and) making the rulings."

Although the jury decided the fate of the Parkland school shooter, Scherer reviewed all the evidence in the case. 

She also toured the classroom where so many young lives of students were cut short.

"I would say of all the evidence, the hardest part was hearing cell phone video that a child had taken where you could hear the gunfire and the screaming in the background," Scherer said. "That was gut wrenching."

Asked if the shooter should have gotten the death penalty, Scherer is blunt.

"I believe legally he qualified for the death penalty," she said. "I believe legally the state met its burden of proof as proving heinous atrocious and cruel." 

Finding time to relax during a high-profile trial

"So, I love horses," Scherer says when asked how she decompressed during the Parkland trial. "And I moved my horses to Lexington, Kentucky, which to me is just heaven.

"I would take a commuter flight on the weekends and ride my horses in Lexington," she recalls. "They're so tranquil, and so that was my getaway."

Scherer said that was a place of refuge.

Here in South Florida, Scherer trains at the Next Level Performance Center in Davie. She competes in the amateur jump category and has won first-place awards.

"I love it," she said. "The higher those jumps go, the more adrenaline and the more fun it is."

Scherer says the thrill adds to the excitement.

"The fear is part of it. I think anything you do in life is a little scary," she said.

In her professional career, Scherer has also had to dust herself off and keep going.

She's thinking about writing a book, and has also received offers to provide legal commentary, but is quick add Judge Judy doesn't have anything to worry about.

"I don't think Judge Judy has to be worried about anyone ever," Scherer said.

As for the family members of the Parkland victims, the former judge says many have reached out to her following the trial's conclusion. She says they have formed a special bond and she affectionately calls them her "guardian angels." 

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