Judge: Public defender must represent massacre defendant

Author: TERRY SPENCER/ Associated Press
(Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

A public defender must continue representing the former student charged in last year’s Florida high school massacre, a judge ruled Friday, saying it’s unlikely that Nikolas Cruz will actually receive a large inheritance left by his late mother.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer rejected a request from Broward County public defenders to make Cruz hire private attorneys with the $432,000 before taxes he’s entitled to receive from his late mother’s annuity. Under state law, the office can only represent indigent defendants.

Scherer ruled Cruz hasn’t applied for the money and if he did, it would likely be claimed through lawsuits filed by his victims’ families. Cruz, 20, is charged with killing 17 and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz has said he wants any money he receives from his mother Lynda Cruz’s estate be given to the victims’ families.

Scherer wrote that she “cannot presume at this time any expectancy” that Cruz will receive the money, which would be about $300,000 after taxes.

At a hearing Wednesday, Assistant Public Defender Diane Cuddihy argued that even though Cruz hasn’t received any money, he is entitled to it. That, she said, was enough to make him no longer indigent under state law, and she and her colleagues believed they could no longer represent him. She never said they didn’t want to represent him, however.

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said Friday his office will review Scherer’s ruling and might appeal.

“It is not a question of whether we want to stay on the case or not, only whether Florida law allows our services to be rendered,” he said.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office declined to comment Friday. Prosecutors and victims’ families opposed the public defenders’ removal during Wednesday’s hearing, saying not only will Cruz lose any money he might receive, but forcing him to hire private attorneys would needlessly delay his trial’s scheduled start early next year. They also asked Scherer to consider the time and money already spent that would be wasted if Cruz got new attorneys.

Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia in November 2017, three months before the shooting. She left an annuity worth about $865,000 to be split by Cruz and his younger brother. Their father died more than a decade earlier.

An attorney for MetLife told Scherer on Wednesday that the brothers could have received the money before the shooting, but neither has yet made a claim. Jeannine Jacobson told Scherer that Cruz can waive his half, giving the entirety to his brother.

The public defenders have said Cruz would plead guilty for a life sentence. Prosecutors want the death penalty.

Cruz spent several years in and out of schools for children with emotional and behavioral problems, but attended Stoneman Douglas before being kicked out about a year before the attack.

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