Public defenders ask to step down from Parkland shooting case
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Two public defenders representing Nikolas Cruz—the suspect in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 people dead and another 17 injured in 2018—unexpectedly requested to be removed from his case Wednesday.
Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstein and his chief assistant Gordon Weekes said in a notice to the court that they recently learned their 20-year-old client will receive $432,000 from his late mother’s life insurance policy and will no longer qualify for free legal representation under state law, according to the Associated Press, Newsweek and the Washington Post.
“By statute, we can only represent the poor and indigent,” Weekes told the AP. “We are asking to withdraw from the case because the defendant is no longer poor.”
It is unclear how Cruz would manage the money from prison or if he would actually receive the inheritance. The victims’ families are suing Cruz in civil lawsuits and could claim that the payout should go to them.
“The victims’ families’ lawyers are probably going to move to freeze those assets,” Finkelstein told the Washington Post. “Because of their significant trauma and awful loss, they’re entitled under the law to receive monetary damages. So if they freeze those assets, then he doesn’t have access to them.”
Cruz has said that he wants any money from his mother’s estate or insurance to go to victims and their families, the AP says. Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia in November 2017, three months before the Parkland shooting.
The public defenders said Cruz was likely to receive only about $30,000 from his mother’s policy at a court hearing last year. Finkelstein told the Washington Post they were shocked by the actual amount.
Weekes said they cannot help Cruz hire a private criminal defense attorney or advise him on the inheritance, the AP says.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer is presiding over the criminal case and has not set a hearing on the public defenders’ withdrawal motion.
Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder arising from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where he was a student. He faces a possible death sentence.
On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Ron DeSantis did not exceed his authority when he suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel over the Parkland shooting and an earlier shooting at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport that killed five people.
The governor had issued an executive order suspending Israel in January, blaming his deputies’ lack of training and an untimely response to the shootings.