Browne credits the intervention of the defendant’s mother, who appeared before the jury, described his upbringing, and, as she left the courtroom, turned to the jury, bowed, and said “Please do not kill my son,” a moment Browne said was unplanned but persuasive.
“The main goal for the defense in a case like that is to get the jury to see the defendant as a real person. I try to present my client as a human being who made a mistake, who did something bad, but not as someone who deserves to die."
- John Henry Browne, Ted Bundy’s defense lawyer
Defense lawyers in the Parkland case have not outlined a plan to humanize Cruz, whose mother died about three months before the shooting and whose mental health issues were recognized for years. While mental health is all but certain to play a role in Cruz’s defense, his lawyers have not yet said whether he will enter an insanity plea.
“We have time to file our intention to use that defense if it’s what we want to pursue,” said public defender Gordon Weekes. “We’re not there yet, and we won’t say anything prematurely.”
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer and lawyers on both sides of the emotionally charged case are pushing to start jury selection this fall. Legal experts agree that guilt is a secondary issue. The primary concern, they say, is what to do about it.
And the only way for defense lawyers to win is to somehow persuade a jury to show mercy on a killer who showed no mercy on Valentine’s Day 2018.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Cruz, a former student at Stoneman Douglas whose troubled past raised warning flags that weren’t fully recognized until it was, tragically, too late. It would take all 12 jurors to reject first-degree murder charges, or just one to reject the death penalty, to keep Cruz off death row.
“Everybody's going to know about it. In a case like Parkland, I'd push for a change of venue. I don't know of anywhere in the state where the jury won't know about the case, but the emotional connection can be reduced by holding the trial elsewhere."
- Steven Glazer, a Tallahassee defense lawyer who has been practicing since 1989 and whose highest-profile client, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, was executed in 2002
“It’s almost impossible to presume innocence in a case that’s generated this much publicity,” said Steven Glazer, a Tallahassee defense lawyer who has been practicing since 1989 and whose highest-profile client, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, was executed in 2002.
“Everybody’s going to know about it,” Glazer said. “In a case like Parkland, I’d push for a change of venue. I don’t know of anywhere in the state where the jury won’t know about the case, but the emotional connection can be reduced by holding the trial elsewhere.”
Broward lawyer Ken Malnick, whose clients include Anthony Moscatiello, the accused mastermind of the plot to kill Miami Subs founder Gus Boulis in 2001, agreed that a change of venue would give the defense its best chance for a fair hearing. “I don’t know how you’re going to get an unbiased jury in the Parkland case,” he said. “It affects so many people here. I’m sure in North Florida the case has gotten less publicity than here, where it happened.”
As prosecutors and defense lawyers draw their final battle lines in the Stoneman Douglas case, the Broward Public Defender’s Office has been silent on whether it will try to have the trial moved. They’ve also been mum on whether Cruz will put up an insanity defense.
Recent motions demonstrate the defense is concerned about the effect of pretrial publicity. Earlier this month, they tried to have the judge close all remaining pretrial hearings to the public, which would prevent the press from reporting on the last-minute courtroom maneuvers and attempts to keep evidence from the jury.
Prosecutors are no less concerned about what the jury will hear. In their latest motion, they are asking the judge to block the defense from using the alleged failures of school, law enforcement and mental health officials to identify the danger Cruz posed and obtain the proper mental health treatment for him before it was too late.
A report issued by a consultant to the school district in mid-2018 found that in the year leading up to the mass shooting, Cruz was stripped of the therapeutic services students with disabilities need, and when he asked to return to a campus for students with special needs, school officials botched his request. Cruz had no school counseling or services for students with special needs for 14 months before Feb. 14, 2018, the day of the shooting.
But those failures, among others, are not excuses and should not be used by Cruz to elicit sympathy from the jury when it comes to deciding his punishment, prosecutors argued.
“Cruz’s conduct leaves no room for arguments about system failures,” wrote prosecutor Nicole Chappione. “The law deems this evidence irrelevant to the issues of both his guilt and punishment.” Weekes, whose office has moved to block the state from calling the shooting a massacre or referring to the defendant by dehumanizing terms like “monster” or “it,” said his office will respond to the latest prosecution motion in court.
Cruz’s next hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.