The judge who oversaw the Parkland school shooter’s penalty phase should be publicly reprimanded for showing bias toward prosecutors and being "intemperate" with defense lawyers in the case, a Florida state agency that investigates judicial misconduct allegations recommended on Monday.
The Investigative Panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission found that Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer violated several rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct while presiding over Nikolas Cruz’s monthslong penalty phase and sentencing for the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
A Broward County jury sentenced Cruz to life without the possibility of parole in 2022 after failing to reach a unanimous decision on whether he deserved the death penalty.
Scherer, a former Broward County prosecutor who became a judge in 2012, drew praise and criticism for her handling of the proceeding. Her clashes with Cruz’s team of Broward County public defenders over procedural and evidentiary matters made headlines while the victims' families praised her for her compassion.
The 15-member panel of judges, lawyers and citizens investigated key moments in the proceedings for which Scherer came under fire. Among the commission’s findings:
Scherer unduly chastised lead public defender Melisa McNeill for the time and manner in which McNeill announced the conclusion of the defense case.
Scherer failed to curtail vitriolic statements directed at defense counsel by the victims' family members as they delivered victim impact statements.
Scherer wrongly accused defense lawyer David Wheeler of threatening her children when he said, "Judge, I can assure you that if they were talking about your children, you would certainly notice" as part of his argument that the victims’ families were making inappropriate comments about the defense. She embraced members of the prosecution after sentencing.
The commission’s report noted that Scherer said she offered hugs to members of the defense, but they declined. The report also said that Scherer admitted that "her conduct fell below what is reasonably expected of a trial judge and had the potential to damage the perception of the judiciary and our system of justice in ways that cannot be easily cured."
The commission acknowledged that "the worldwide publicity surrounding the case created stress and tension for all participants." Nevertheless, judges are expected to "ensure due process, order and decorum, and act always with dignity and respect to promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary," the commission said.
"In limited instances during this unique and lengthy case, Judge Scherer allowed her emotions to overcome her judgment," the commission said in its report to the Florida Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide if disciplinary action is warranted.
Scherer announced last month that was retiring, saying it had nothing to do with the backlash over her handling of the case. The commission’s report notes that "Judge Scherer’s recent resignation was not a condition of this agreement."
This story was originally published by Emanuella Grinberg at Court TV.
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