A Broward Circuit Court judge has held off ruling on whether the confessed Parkland school shooter still needs a public defender, amid questions about his finances and concerns that changing his legal team could delay the start of his trial.
During a hearing on Wednesday, the Broward Public Defenders’ Office—which is representing Nikolas Cruz—argued that the recent revelation that he's entitled to a nearly $432,000 annuity from his late mother means he is no longer poor enough for a public defender. He could use the money to now hire a private attorney to represent him on charges that he murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.
But state prosecutors and relatives of victims of the shooting responded that the insurance payout is not enough to afford private laywers. Changing his legal team could also delay the case as the new lawyers familiarize themselves with evidence and testimony taken over the past year. Judge Elizabeth Scherer has already faced complaints from state prosecutors over the pace of the case.
Scherer on Wednesday said she would consider opposing arguments and make a ruling at a later date. She ordered the Public Defenders’ Office to stay on the case until then.
For Debbie Hixon, the widow of slain Stoneman Douglas Athletic Director Chris Hixon, the possibility of changing legal teams and further delaying the trial start is “unbearable.”
“It’s long enough,” Hixon told Scherer during the hearing. “We really don’t want to wait any longer.”
Public defenders learned in April that Cruz is entitled to half of a nearly $863,000 MetLife life insurance policy from his mother, Lydia, who died in 2017. The total, which fluctuates with the market, is to be split with Cruz’s brother, Zachary.
Defense attorneys subsequently filed a motion asking to withdraw from the case. They said the inheritance means Cruz is no longer indigent and does not need a public defender.
But state prosecutors have argued that the annuity is not enough to fund a private legal team. The state has rejected Cruz’s offer to plead guilty to the killings if prosecutors do not seek the death penalty. Assistant State Attorney Joel Silvershein said Cruz will likely need separate attorneys—one to defend him on the 17 charges and the other to argue the death penalty phase of the trial.
Cruz also still has not claimed the inheritance. If he does, it will be taxed, further limiting the value of it.
There are also multiple wrongful death lawsuits against him from the families of the victims. Default judgments against Cruz could potentially eat up the annuity and eliminate any funds available for a private lawyer, said attorney David Brill, representing David Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died in the shooting.
“We’re entitled to damages,” Brill said. “There is something fundamentally wrong to allowing him to use the money for private attorneys this late in the game.” He added that the families of the victims want to see money split equally among themselves.
Scherer’s decision could affect the timeline of the case. She told both legal teams in February she wants the trial to begin in January 2020.
But if she rules in favor of the public defenders’ motion to withdraw, the trial start could be delayed because the new legal team will have to review a year’s worth of litigation. State prosecutors have already complained that the case must head to trial to give victims’ families closure.
“We have to deal with things as they are today,” Silvershein said. Removing the public defender after one year of preparation would constitute “an unreasonable delay at this time.”