Florida Supreme Court reprimands judge for behavior during Parkland school shooting trial

The Florida Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded the judge who oversaw the sentencing of the Parkland high school shooter on Monday for showing bias against the prosecution.

The unanimous decision followed the June recommendation of the Referee Qualification Commission. The panel found that District Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules governing judges’ conduct during last year’s trial in her handling of Nicholas Cruz’s public defenders. The six-month trial ended with Cruz being sentenced to life in prison for the 2018 murder of 14 students and three staff at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School after the jury failed to unanimously agree that he deserved the death penalty.

The 15-member panel found that Scherer “wrongly chastised” lead public defender Melisa McNeil and her team, wrongly accused one of Cruz’s lawyers of threatening her child, and improperly hugged members of the prosecution in the courtroom after the trial concluded.

The commission, made up of judges, lawyers and citizens, acknowledged that “the worldwide publicity around the case has created stress and tension for all involved.”

Despite this, the commission stated that judges must “ensure due process, order and decorum and act with dignity and respect at all times to promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Scherer came off the bench at the end of last month. The 46-year-old former prosecutor was appointed to the court in 2012, and Cruz’s case was her first capital murder trial. Broward County’s computerized system randomly assigned her a Cruz case shortly after the shooting.

The way Scherer handled the case was often praised by the parents and spouses of the victims, who said she treated them with professionalism and kindness. But her clashes with Cruise’s lawyers and others have sometimes drawn criticism from lawyers.

After sentencing Cruz, 24, to life in prison without parole, as required, Scherer stood up from the bench and hugged members of the prosecution and the families of the victims. She told the commission that she also offered to hug the defense team.

That action led the Supreme Court in April to remove her from overseeing petitions for the conviction of another defendant, Randy Tandydor, who was sentenced to death for the 2019 murder of his landlord. One of the prosecutors in the case was also on Cruz’s team, and during the Tundidor hearing a few days after Cruz’s sentencing, Scherer asked the prosecutor how he was holding up.

The court said Scherer’s actions gave at least the appearance that she could not be fair to Tundidor.

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