Lawyer: Parkland school shooting suspect needs public defense

Author: Associated Press
FILE- This Feb. 19, 2018 file photo shows Nikolas Cruz appearing in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Florida prosecutors announced Tuesday, March 13 that they will seek the death penalty against Cruz, a former student charged in the fatal shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz should continue to be represented at taxpayer expense because he likely does not have the assets to pay a private lawyer for what will rapidly balloon into a multi-million dollar case, his public defenders told a judge Wednesday.

The Broward County Public Defender’s office urged Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer to continue classifying Cruz as indigent despite evidence he could have access to $30,000 or more. They said that’s far too little to hire a lawyer for such a massive death penalty case that could last for years.

“That amount of money would have already been gone,” said Howard Finkelstein, the chief public defender. “Thirty thousand dollars is not enough to hire a lawyer in this case.”

Scherer did not immediately rule but said she would issue a decision before the next pretrial hearing April 27.

Cruz sat motionless with his head bowed during the brief hearing, which again was held under heavy security with about 20 uniformed Broward Sheriff’s Office personnel ringing the courtroom. Cruz’s younger brother, Zachary, attended the hearing but left without speaking with reporters.

Cruz, 19, is charged with killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Feb. 14 mass shooting. He faces the death penalty if convicted. Finkelstein repeated that Cruz will plead guilty if the death penalty is waived.

“We’re prepared to do it today. We’re making it clear,” Finkelstein said.

But Assistant State Attorney Shari Tate said prosecutors won’t let that happen and that the case should go to a jury.

“The state of Florida is not allowing Mr. Cruz to choose his own punishment for the murder of 17 people,” she said.

According to his lawyers, the biggest asset Cruz has is $25,000 from a life insurance policy taken out by his mother, Lynda Cruz, who died in November. He also has Microsoft stock that was worth $2,227 as of Tuesday and $353 in a Wells Fargo bank account. The bank account contained several thousand dollars more in fall of 2017 but the money apparently was spent, Cruz’s lawyers said.

Cruz also has about $669 in his jail account, which has been receiving donations from people around the country.

There is also an ongoing probate case involving the estate of Cruz’s father, Roger Cruz, who died in 2004. Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill told the judge her office has been unable to determine what amount, if any, might eventually go to Nikolas Cruz.

McNeill also said Cruz wants any money he ever gets to be donated to a fund that would benefit the Stoneman Douglas High victims and their families to promote “healing” in the community.

“Mr. Cruz does not want those funds,” McNeill said.

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