A concerning truth has emerged as anticipation grows ahead of the penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz, the former student who fatally shot 17 victims at a Parkland, Florida school in 2018, namely, that the presiding judge was assigned at random and has never overseen a case of this magnitude, as the Associated Press reports.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer’s assignment to the matter occurred due to a randomized computer selection that did not factor in prior experience handing death penalty or other high-profile cases, something which has elicited worry among court observers.
Scherer, according to the AP, is 45 years old and has sat on the bench since 2012 having previously spent time working as a mid-tier county prosecutor, a background many believe could set the stage for reversible error that could place a death sentence for Cruz – if one is obtained – in real jeopardy.
In the event a retrial would be required, critics suggest, the emotional wounds of the community and of the victims’ families would need to be painfully – and perhaps avoidably – reopened.
Skepticism about Scherer’s ability to handle the Cruz case grew last last month when a procedural error resulted in the dismissal of 200 potential jurors, effectively erasing two weeks’ worth of work in the process of assembling a panel to decide the killer’s fate, as the Palm Beach Post reported.
Further worsening their alarm was the fact that Scherer openly vented her exasperation about the expected length of a hearing on possible testimony from defense experts regarding brain damage Cruz claims to have suffered in the womb.
Whereas the judge believed the proceeding should require no more than a day or two, attorneys in the case maintained that a full week would be required, as the AP noted.
Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, opined, “The Cruz case shows what happens when you have an inexperienced judge handling a high-profile death penalty case. Any jurist would have found this to be a tough case to handle, given the inordinate publicity, but a highly trained judge would likely have done better – i.e., kept their composure, avoided obvious mistakes, and given the defense fewer grounds for appeal.”
Whether Judge Scherer does have the capacity to get the trial under control and steer clear of additional, potentially reversible error is something that remains to be seen, but all Americans can surely unite in their hope that justice is done for the Parkland victims and those who loved them.