'Middle-finger stunt' and a judge's hug raise ethics issues in Parkland, Florida, school shooter's trial
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Photo by Katherine Welles/Shutterstock.
The judge who presided in the trial of Parkland, Florida, school shooter Nikolas Cruz and a defense lawyer are being criticized for their actions during the proceedings.
Broward County assistant public defender Tamara Curtis is facing an ethics investigation following a “middle-finger stunt,” while Judge Elizabeth Scherer is under fire for a post-trial hug and her treatment of defense lawyers.
The Florida Bar has confirmed to several publications that it is investigating Curtis. The bar didn’t give a reason why, but the defense lawyer was caught on camera rubbing her face with her middle finger before a pretrial hearing July 12. After that, Curtis and Cruz laughed.
During victim impact statements, several victims’ family members criticized Curtis. One described the gesture as a “middle-finger stunt.”
NBC News noted that the Florida Bar begins an investigation when it receives a written inquiry regarding the conduct of a lawyer. Twenty-five percent of inquiries lead to the opening of a disciplinary file.
Critics on Twitter, meanwhile, slammed Scherer for hugging prosecutors after the sentencing, according to Law & Crime.
“Professional tip to judges: Don’t do this,” said one tweet.
Scherer is also being criticized for alleged “hostile and demeaning treatment of defense counsel” in a Nov. 3 letter by Ernest L. Chang, the president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The letter criticized Scherer for telling public defender Gordon Weekes and Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler to go sit down. Scherer acted after the lawyers objected to what they perceived as threats by victims’ families during impact statements.
“The image of a judge relegating an elected public defender and his top assistant to sit in the corner like misbehaving children is offensive and discounts their very vital and difficult role in this system,” according to the letter, which was posted by Law.com.
Weekes and Wheeler had asked that their objections be heard in a sidebar, “rather than in full public view,” the letter said. After Scherer refused, the lawyers “politely and plainly” asked Scherer to prevent further victim impact testimony containing “thinly veiled threats,” and Scherer refused.
Wheeler suggested that Scherer would feel differently if the threats were about her and her family. Scherer “turned that on its head and said the lawyer was threatening her children,” according to the letter. But Wheeler “never did any such thing,” the letter said. Scherer then directed the lawyers to sit down.
Scherer’s “hostility reveals a temperament ill-suited to the criminal bench,” said the letter, which was addressed to the chief judge of the circuit court in which Scherer sits.
Cruz was sentenced to life in prison without parole Nov. 2 for the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Fourteen students and three staff members were killed. Cruz pleaded guilty in October 2021. The death-penalty phase of the trial began this summer.
Scherer, a former prosecutor, was randomly assigned to the Cruz case, according to past coverage by the New York Times. It was her first death-penalty case.
ABAJournal.com: “Judge rules school, sheriff’s office had ‘no legal duty’ to protect students in mass shooting”
ABAJournal.com: “Public defenders ask to step down from Parkland shooting case”