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Nikolas Cruz’s jury selection resumes as its revealed judge was assigned by random computer

The judge presiding over the death penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz who gunned down 17 people in 2018 was assigned the case despite never having overseen a major trial or one with so much publicity.

Jury selection resumed Monday more than a month after a potential juror was asked to be dismissed from the trial because of obligations to her ‘sugar daddy.’ 

The process grew even more complicated when Judge Elizabeth Scherer dismissed an entire pool of potential jurors last month after eight of them were led out of the courtroom in tears after the confessed school shooter walked in the room.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 14 students and three adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

The judge’s assignment to Cruz’ case was selected randomly by a computer program that didn’t consider experience or the fact that no U.S. mass shooting of this magnitude had ever made it to court. This random selection process is used throughout much of Florida.

Now, every move Scherer makes is being scrutinized, at least partly, through the lens of how she was assigned and her inexperience – particularly compared to the case’s seasoned prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Nikolas Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 14 students and three adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

Nikolas Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 14 students and three adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer was assigned the case despite never having overseen a major trial

Judge Elizabeth Scherer was assigned the case despite never having overseen a major trial

Cruz is shown at the defense table during jury selection in the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday

Cruz is shown at the defense table during jury selection in the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday

Cruz looks up as one of his lawyers, capital defense attorney Casey Secor, makes an argument in court during jury selection on Monday

Cruz looks up as one of his lawyers, capital defense attorney Casey Secor, makes an argument in court during jury selection on Monday

Overseeing the Cruz trial would be stressful for the most-battle hardened jurist; serious errors that harm Cruz’s case could get a death sentence reversed on appeal. That would likely mean a retrial years from now, which would reopen the families’ and community’s emotional scars.

For Scherer – a 45-year-old judge who was appointed to the bench in 2012 after serving as a mid-tier prosecutor in Broward County – it will likely be even more difficult. Scherer has never experienced the spotlight of a capital case. 

Scherer, a registered Republican who lives in Broward County, has been on the case since 2019, when Cruz was charged.

She sparred with his attorneys during proceedings, labeling them ‘disrespectful’ at times.

In 2018, she threatened to restrict reporting of the case after a local newspaper published information about Cruz that was not intended to be part of the public record.

Fort Lauderdale attorneys told The Sun Sentinel at the time that she had a reputation for showing up late to court and for being ‘testy’ and ‘cranky.’

Scherer is a mother, wife and avid horse rider who, according to social media profiles, belonged at one time to the Stanford Equestrian team.

Judge Scherer, a registered Republican who lives in Broward County, has been on the case since 2019, when Cruz was charged.

Judge Scherer, a registered Republican who lives in Broward County, has been on the case since 2019, when Cruz was charged.

Judge Scherer, a registered Republican who lives in Broward County, has been on the case since 2019, when Cruz was charged

Cruz, above in his booking photo, was a 19-year-old expelled student with a history of mental health and behavioral issues at the time of the killings

Cruz, above in his booking photo, was a 19-year-old expelled student with a history of mental health and behavioral issues at the time of the killings

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys said she seriously erred last month when she dismissed 11 potential jurors before letting the lawyers question them.

Just before the dismissal, a potential juror asked to be dismissed herself from the trial because of obligations to her ‘sugar daddy.’

The married woman, identified only as Ms. Bristol, became a viral sensation after giving her scandalous reason for not wanting to be part of the months-long trial.

‘Well I am married and I have my sugar daddy. I see him every day,’ she explained to Judge Scherer. 

Scherer appeared confused but later dismissed the woman. 

‘It’s all day for six months and what’s my hardship? I need my sugar daddy money,’ she told WPLG, adding that he provides her with about $8,000 a month.

The native New Yorker says she could lose her house if she doesn’t see him.

‘If I do this case for six months, I have a hardship that means my sugar daddy can’t support me,’ she explained, though the case is only expected to stretch from June to September. 

The 12-member jury that is eventually chosen will decide whether aggravating factors such as the number of victims and Cruz’s planning and cruelty outweigh such mitigating factors as his lifelong mental and emotional problems, his possible sexual abuse and his parents’ deaths. 

The trial is expected to last through the summer. 

Ms. Bristol says she asked to be dismissed from the sentencing of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz because she needs to be able to see her 'sugar daddy'

Ms. Bristol says she asked to be dismissed from the sentencing of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz because she needs to be able to see her ‘sugar daddy’

The axed potential juror says she would've missed out on $8,000 a month from her lover. The native New Yorker says she could lose her house if she doesn't see him

The axed potential juror says she would’ve missed out on $8,000 a month from her lover. The native New Yorker says she could lose her house if she doesn’t see him

Judge Elizabeth Scherer was baffled by the woman's excuse, which she first shared in court, and said: 'OK ma'am, we'll come back to you' before dismissing her last month

Judge Elizabeth Scherer was baffled by the woman’s excuse, which she first shared in court, and said: ‘OK ma’am, we’ll come back to you’ before dismissing her last month

Scherer has expressed frustration at the length of an upcoming hearing over whether defense experts can testify that Cruz’s brain suffered damage as a result of his birth mother’s alcohol abuse. The judge said she thought it should take a day or two; the attorneys, sounding exasperated, said a week is needed.

‘The Cruz case shows what happens when you have an inexperienced judge handling a high-profile death penalty case,’ said Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor. ‘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.’

Scherer declined to comment, which is customary with judges. In court, she remarked that she will spend hours at night and on weekends researching any difficult legal or scientific issues before making decisions. Chief Judge Jack Tuter also declined to comment.

Bruce Rogow, a well-known Florida defense and constitutional lawyer, said Scherer is handling the case well.

‘Judge Scherer has already demonstrated sensitivity to the juror nuances that are critical in such proceedings,’ Rogow said. 

‘She was a prosecutor, she has been a judge for a decade, she is smart. She is being careful. That is all one can ask from any judge. No judge wants this kind of case, but when a judge is called upon to preside over such a proceeding, it is important that the public empathize with the burden.’

Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks with Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann, left, and Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis during a sidebar discussion prior to jury pre-selection in the penalty phase of the trial of Nikolas Cruz on April 25, 2022

Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks with Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann, left, and Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis during a sidebar discussion prior to jury pre-selection in the penalty phase of the trial of Nikolas Cruz on April 25, 2022

But Bill Gelin, a Fort Lauderdale defense attorney who writes for a blog on Broward courthouse news, said Tuter should have scrapped the random process and assigned a more-experienced judge or got the prosecutors and defense attorneys to agree on one.

‘This is not a Scherer problem; this is a chief judge problem,’ Gelin said. If Scherer makes an error that causes a retrial, he said, ‘that will be pouring salt on the wounds’ of the victims’ families.

In other states, court systems in counties of a similar size as Broward don’t leave judge assignments strictly to chance.

Judge Scherer dismissed an entire 60-person pool of potential jurors last month after at least eight emotional people had to be escorted out of the room

Judge Scherer dismissed an entire 60-person pool of potential jurors last month after at least eight emotional people had to be escorted out of the room 

The jurors became emotional after Cruz, who confessed to killing 17 people at a South Florida high school in 2018, walked into the room

The jurors became emotional after Cruz, who confessed to killing 17 people at a South Florida high school in 2018, walked into the room

For example, in Santa Clara County, California, the home of San Jose, the criminal division’s supervising judge assigns cases ‘with consideration of case complexity, judicial availability, experience, knowledge and abilities.’

In Queens, New York, and throughout New York state, judges are assigned randomly but if there are extenuating circumstances such as a case´s high profile or complexity, the court´s administrative judge can reassign it.

The 12-member jury that is eventually chosen will decide whether aggravating factors such as the number of victims and Cruz’s planning and cruelty outweigh such mitigating factors as his lifelong mental and emotional problems, his possible sexual abuse and his parents’ deaths.

If even one juror votes for life without parole, that will be the sentence imposed on the former Stoneman Douglas student. The trial is scheduled to last four months after a jury is selected.

The computer that manages Broward County’s criminal cases assigned Cruz to Scherer shortly after the shootings. The system makes sure judges have caseloads of generally equal size and complexity, but otherwise doles out cases randomly. 

It also prevents the possibility of cases being assigned to specific judges to get a preferred outcome.

Above, prosecutors Carolyn McCann, Mike Satz and Jeff Marcus in April 2022

Above, prosecutors Carolyn McCann, Mike Satz and Jeff Marcus in April 2022

At the time she was assigned the case, Scherer had been a judge for six years, and her biggest trials were two second-degree murders and two manslaughters, a defense court filing shows. Her name rarely appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Broward’s newspaper.

But Scherer quickly planted her flag. Shortly after the shootings, when she was unavailable, the defense asked another judge for an emergency order, which he granted. Scherer overruled him and ordered that all matters except search warrants would be heard only by her.

She blasted two Sun Sentinel reporters for publishing a sealed Cruz educational record that they obtained legally. She threatened to tell the paper what it could and couldn’t print, but never did. That would have been unconstitutional, lawyers said.

The case’s prosecutors and defense attorneys were not assigned by computer, of course. Then-Broward State Attorney Mike Satz and then-Public Defender Howard Finkelstein turned to their best, most-experienced lawyers.

Florida regulates who can be assigned to represent death penalty defendants. Both the lead attorney and co-counsel must be experienced in criminal law and at trial and educated on capital case procedures.

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