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A judge in Florida was appointed to hear the school shooter’s case at random

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A judge in Florida was appointed to hear the school shooter's case at random

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (AP) – District Judge Elizabeth Scherer has assigned a case to a former Florida student who shot …

FORT-LAUDERDALE, FL (AP) – District Judge Elizabeth Scherer was charged with the case of a former Florida student who shot dead 17 people in 2018, despite never watching the death penalty trial or trial with great publicity.

Her appointment in the case of Nicholas Cruz was made at random using a computer program that did not take into account the experience or the fact that no mass shooting in the United States of this magnitude has ever gone to court. The random selection process is used in most of Florida, but not in some other states.

A jury is currently being selected in the Cruz trial for the massacre of 14 students and three adults at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. And every decision that Scherer makes is viewed, at least in part, through the prism of how she was appointed and her inexperience – especially compared to experienced prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Watching Cruz’s trial would be stressful for the most seasoned lawyer; serious mistakes detrimental to Cruz’s case could lead to the reversal of the death sentence on appeal. Probably, it would mean a retrial in a few years, which will reopen the emotional scars of families and society.

For Scherer, a 45-year-old judge who was appointed to the post in 2012 after serving as a middle-ranking prosecutor in Broward County, this is likely to be even more difficult. Scherer never felt the focus of the capital affair. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys said she made a serious mistake last month in firing 11 potential jurors before allowing lawyers to question them.

Scherer also expressed disappointment at the length of the upcoming hearing on whether defense experts could testify that Cruz’s brain was affected by his mother’s alcohol abuse. The judge said she thought it should take a day or two; lawyers, sounding annoyed, said they needed a week.

“Cruz’s case shows what happens when you have an inexperienced judge leading a high-profile case of the death penalty,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Southeastern University of Nova. “Any lawyer would find this case difficult to handle given the excessive publicity, but a highly qualified judge would probably do better – that is, remain calm, avoid obvious mistakes and consider fewer grounds for appeal. ”

Scherer declined to comment, which is accepted by the judges. In court, she noted that she would spend hours at night and on weekends researching any complex legal or scientific issues before making decisions. Chief Justice Jack Tuter also declined to comment.

Bruce Horn, a well-known Florida lawyer and constitutional lawyer, said Scherer was doing well.

“Judge Scherer has already demonstrated sensitivity to the nuances of juries that are crucial in such trials,” Rogov said. “She was a prosecutor, she has been a judge for ten years, she is smart. She is careful. That’s all you can ask any judge. No judge wants to hear such cases, but when a judge is called upon to preside over such a process, it is important that the public sympathize with the burden. ”

But Bill Gelin, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who writes for a blog about the Broward Court building news, said Tuter had to drop the random trial and appoint a more experienced judge or get prosecutors and lawyers to agree on one.

“It’s not Sherr’s problem; this is the problem of the chief judge, ”Gelin said. If Scherer makes a mistake that will cause a retrial, he said “it will add salt to the wounds” of the victims’ families.

In other states, judicial systems in counties of the same size as Broward do not leave the appointment of judges solely to chance.

For example, in Santa Clara County, California, at home in San Jose, a criminal justice judge assigns cases “based on the complexity of the case, the availability of court, experience, knowledge, and ability.”

In Queens, New York, and throughout New York State, judges are appointed at random, but if there are mitigating circumstances, such as high profile or complexity of the case, an administrative court judge may reappoint him.

In October, the 23-year-old Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 Valentine’s Day attack. As a result, a 12-member jury will decide whether aggravating factors such as the number of victims and Cruz’s planning and brutality are outweighed by mitigating factors such as his lifelong mental and emotional problems, possible sexual abuse and parental death.

If at least one juror votes for life imprisonment, it will be a sentence for former Stoneman student Douglas. The trial is scheduled for four months after the jury selection.

The computer, which manages Broward County criminal affairs, appointed Cruz Sheraru shortly after the shootings. The system provides a workload of judges of generally equal size and complexity, but otherwise distributes cases randomly. It also prevents the possibility of transferring cases to specific judges to obtain a preferred outcome.

At the time she was assigned the case, Scherer had been a judge for six years, and her biggest trials were two second-degree murders and two unintentional homicides, according to the defense court. Her name rarely appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, a Broward newspaper.

But Scherer quickly raised his flag. Shortly after the shooting, when she was unavailable, the defense asked another judge for an emergency order, which he gave. Scherer rejected him and ordered that all matters except search warrants be considered only by her.

She accused two Sun Sentinel reporters of publishing a sealed Cruz educational card, which they received legally. She threatened to tell the newspaper what she could and could not print, but she did not. That would be unconstitutional, lawyers say.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys were certainly not appointed by computer. The then Broward State Attorney Mike Zatz and then-Attorney General Howard Finkelstein turned to their best, most experienced attorneys.

For Sats, this included calling himself the attorney general. He retained that position even after resigning after 44 years in early 2021, during which he personally prosecuted most of those accused of killing Police Broward. He is also a former Scherer chief.

Florida regulates who may be assigned to represent defendants sentenced to death. Both the chief lawyer and the co-lawyer must have experience in criminal law and litigation, as well as well-established procedures for conducting death cases.

Finkelstein, who also resigned in 2021, appointed Melissa McNeill to lead Cruz’s team. As an assistant attorney general for two decades, McNeill has represented 17 murder suspects in court, including two death sentences.

David Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said both sides should use their best practices to teach Scherer, not use it.

“While each side will seek to advance its position, it is their duty, especially in criminal matters, to ensure that the law is enforced,” Weinstein said.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or distributed.

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