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Defense lawyers in Parkland school shooting trial unexpectedly rest their case, sparking heated exchange with judge

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

Attorneys for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz suddenly and surprisingly rested their case Wednesday, leading to a heated exchange after the judge accused them of a lack of professionalism.

Defense attorneys had told the judge and prosecutors they would be calling 80 witnesses but rested at the beginning of Wednesday's court session after calling only about 25. There were 11 days of defense testimony overall, the last two spotlighting experts about how his birth mother's heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy might have affected his brain's development.

The sudden announcement by lead attorney Melisa McNeill led to a heated exchange between her and Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who called the decision without warning to her or the prosecution "the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case."

The 12-member jury and 10 alternates were not present but were lining up outside the courtroom to enter. The sudden announcement also meant that prosecutors were not ready to begin their rebuttal case.

Mike Satz threw his hands up when Scherer asked if they could begin and, with a nervous laugh, said "no."

"We're waiting for 40 more (defense) witnesses," Satz said.

Scherer then accused the defense attorneys of being inconsiderate to all involved, but especially the jurors for wasting their trip to court.

"To have 22 people march into court and be waiting as if it is some kind of game. I have never experienced such a level of unprofessionalism in my career," Scherer said, raising her voice.

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

McNeill countered angrily, "You are insulting me on the record in front of my client," before Scherer told her to stop. Scherer then laid into McNeill, with whom she has had a testy relationship since pretrial hearings began three years ago.

"You've been insulting me the entire trial," Scherer told McNeill. "Blatantly taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don't like my rulings. So, quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated."

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to murdering 14 students and three staff members on Feb. 14, 2018, at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His trial, now ending its second month, is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole.

After his attorneys rested, he told Scherer under oath that he agreed with the decision.

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.

Satz showed graphic autopsy and crime scene photos and took jurors to the fenced-off building, which remains blood-stained and bullet-pocked. Parents and spouses gave tearful and angry statements about their loss.

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

Last month, the jurors made a rare visit to the massacre scene, retracing Cruz's steps through the three-story freshman building, known as "Building 12." After they left, a group of journalists — including CBS Miami's Joan Murray — was allowed in for a much quicker first public view.

Nothing had been changed, except for the removal of the victims' bodies and some personal items.

"It was really frozen in time," Murray said.

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