Florida judges were randomly assigned to school shooting cases

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (AP) — Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scheller has been assigned to a former judge’s case. Florida student Who Shoot down 17 people In 2018, he never oversaw a death sentence or a trial that made a lot of publicity.

Her assignment Nikolas Cruz The case was randomly conducted by a computer program that did not take into account experience and the fact that US shootings of this size had never been brought to court. The random selection process is used in most of Florida, but not in some other states.

The jury trial is underway at Cruz’s penalty trial for the slaughter of 14 students and 3 adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. She was assigned and her inexperience — especially in comparison to the case’s veteran prosecutor and her counsel.

Overseeing Cruz’s trial will be stressful for the most competitive legal scholars. A serious mistake that harms Cruz’s case could overturn the death sentence in an appeal. That probably means a retry in the next few years, which will reopen the emotional wounds of the family and community.

That could be even more difficult for Scheller, a 45-year-old judge appointed to the bench in 2012 after serving as an interim prosecutor in Broward County. Scheller has never experienced the spotlight of a capitalized incident.Both the prosecution and her lawyer said she made a serious mistake last month. 11 jury trial candidates dismissed Before asking a lawyer to ask a question.

Scheller also expressed dissatisfaction with the length of future hearings on whether defense experts could testify that Cruz’s brain was damaged as a result of alcohol abuse in his birth mother. The judge said he thought it would take a day or two. The lawyer sounded indignant and said he needed a week.

“The Cruz case shows what happens when an inexperienced judge handles a prominent death penalty,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeast University. “Given the over-promotion, any lawyer would have found this a difficult case to deal with, but highly trained judges stay calm, avoid obvious mistakes, and defend themselves. You should reduce the reasons for the appeal. “

Scheller declined to comment, but this is a judge’s practice. In court, she said she would spend hours investigating difficult legal or scientific issues at night and on weekends before making a decision. Judge Jack Tutor also declined to comment.

Bruce Rogow, a well-known Florida lawyer and constitutional lawyer, said Scheller was handling the case well.

“Judge Scheller has shown that he is already sensitive to the nuances of a jury that is important in such proceedings. She is a prosecutor, a judge for 10 years, and is smart. She is careful. That’s all that every judge can ask. No judge wants such a case, but if a judge is asked to preside over such a procedure, the public will do so. It is important to sympathize with the burden. “

However, Fort Lauderdale’s lawyer, Bill Gerin, who blogs about Broward Court news, said tutors would either abolish the random process and appoint a more experienced judge or defend with prosecutors. He said he should have agreed.

“This isn’t Scheller’s problem. Gerin said it’s the presiding judge’s problem,” he said. Will be. “

In other states, the county’s court system, similar in size to Broward, does not strictly coincide with the duties of judges.

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

Judges are randomly assigned throughout Queens, New York, and New York, but if there are circumstances that should be taken into account, such as the attention or complexity of the case, the administrative law judge of the court may reassign them. I can.

23-year-old Cruz pleaded guilty in October The 2018 Valentine’s Day attack resulted in 17 one-time murders and 17 attempted murders. The final twelve jury members will determine whether exacerbating factors such as the number of victims and Cruz’s plans and atrocities outweigh such mitigation, his lifelong spiritual and emotional Factors such as problems, potential sexual abuse, and death of parents.

If one jury voted for a life without parole, it would be a ruling imposed on a former Stoneman Douglas student. The trial will last four months after the jury is elected.

The computer that manages the criminal case in Broward County assigned Cruz to Scheller shortly after the shooting. The system ensures that the judge has a case load of approximately the same size and complexity, but otherwise handles the case randomly. It also prevents the possibility of a case being assigned to a particular judge for favorable results.

Scheller was a judge for six years when she was assigned to the case. Her biggest trials were two murders and manslaughter. Her name rarely appeared in Broward’s newspaper, Sun-Sentinel, South Florida.

But Scheller quickly raised the flag. Immediately after the shooting, when she was absent, the defense sought an emergency order from another judge, who admitted it. Scheller dismissed him and ordered only her to hear everything except her search warrant.

She blew up two Sun Sentinel reporters by publishing a sealed Cruz education record that she had legally obtained. She threatened to tell her what could and couldn’t print on paper, but she never did. That would have been unconstitutional, the lawyer said.

Of course, the prosecutor and defense counsel for the case were not assigned by computer. Attorney Mike Sats and then-elected attorney Howard Finkelstein turned to their best and most experienced attorneys.

For Sats, it involved appointing himself as the chief prosecutor. He maintained his position in early 2021 after resigning 44 years later, during which time he personally prosecuted most of the defendants charged with murdering Brownard police officers. He is also the former boss of Scheller.

Florida regulates who can be assigned to represent the death penalty. Both the chief attorney and the co-lawyer must be experienced in criminal law and trial and be educated in capital proceedings.

Finkelstein, who also resigned in 2021, nominated Melisa McNeill to lead the Cruz team. For 20 years, Assistant Public Defender McNeil has tried 17 murder suspects, including two death sentences.

David Waynestein, a criminal defense counsel and former prosecutor in Miami, said both sides should use their advanced experience to educate Schellers rather than using them.

“Each side tries to move their position forward, but their duty, especially in criminal cases, is to make sure that the law is being followed,” Weinstein said.