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Parkland shooting trial judge denies defense's request to replace her after heated exchange last week

Parkland defense unexpectedly rests case
Defense in Parkland school shooting trial unexpectedly rests, sparking criticism from judge 02:04

The judge overseeing the penalty trial of the Parkland school shooter on Monday denied a motion from defense attorneys to have her replaced with a new judge, following a dramatic week at trial that included a heated exchange between her and the defense counsel. The motion, filed on Friday, alleged that the judge revealed longstanding animosity toward the defense during the exchange that threatens the fairness of the trial. 

The one-page order from judge Elizabeth Scherer did not discuss any of the specific claims made in the Friday motion, but deemed the request "legally insufficient," according to a copy of the document obtained by CBS News.  

The motion claimed that Scherer's conduct during an argument with defense counsel on Wednesday demonstrated "long-held" animosity that "infected" the proceedings and prevented their client, Nikolas Cruz, from getting a fair trial. 

Cruz pleaded guilty last year to murdering 14 students and three staff members in a 2017 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and this trial is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. 

The argument began after the defense team rested their case early Wednesday morning after only calling approximately 25 witnesses, when they had originally told the judge they planned to call about 80. The decision stunned Scherer and prosecutors, who had planned to spend weeks more hearing from the defense's witnesses. 

The sudden announcement by lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill led to the tense exchange between her and Scherer, who called the decision "the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case."

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 during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.  Amy Beth Bennett / AP

Scherer also accused McNeill of insulting her "the entire trial" by "Blatantly taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don't like my rulings." 

In their Friday motion, defense lawyers said Scherer's statements "have caused Mr. Cruz to reasonably fear that the court is prejudiced against his lawyers and him and that he will not receive a fair and impartial trial going forward."

His attorneys' theme throughout their case has been to show how his birth mother's alcohol abuse during pregnancy put him onto a lifelong path of erratic, bizarre and often violent behavior that culminated in the shootings. They also tried to show that his adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, became overwhelmed after her husband died when he was 5 and never got him the proper treatment.

They are trying to overcome the prosecution's case, which focused on his massacre as he stalked a three-story classroom building for seven minutes with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. Lead prosecutor Mike Satz played security videos of the shooting and showed the rifle he used. Teachers and students testified about watching others die.

Prosecutors said they will need more than a week to prepare their rebuttal case. The trial is tentatively scheduled to resume Sept. 27.

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