The Broward Public Defender’s Office has asked to withdraw from confessed Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty case, court records show.
The teen is entitled to half of a nearly $865,000 life insurance policy as of April 23, the court filing shows.
Gordon Weekes, assistant public defender, said: “We have to withdraw.”
This development will throw the criminal case off track. The judge had hoped to begin trial in January.
Some say the amount is nowhere near enough to cover the costs for a new death-penalty qualified defense attorney. Others say Cruz will never see the money because victims’ families who have sued him in civil court have already won default judgments against him.
“My blood is boiling,” Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed, posted on Facebook on Wednesday. “This will only cause more delay. I am furiously mad right now.”
“The defendant and undersigned counsel were previously unaware of this entitlement,” the public defender’s motion, filed Wednesday in Broward Circuit Court, said. “The Law Office of the Public Defender is statutorily prohibited from representing a non-indigent defendant.”
Simply put, the public defender’s office handles clients who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers and taxpayers foot the bill.
Cruz and his younger brother, Zachary, are to split a MetLife policy valued at $864,929.17, presumably a death benefit for their mother, Lynda, who died unexpectedly of a flu-like illness in November 2017.
Someone with $400,000 is not indigent. The judge will have to determine who Cruz’s new defense lawyer will be, Weekes said.
The public defender’s motion said learning of the inheritance was news to them, but a court hearing to discuss the possibility was held last year and Cruz had told James and Kimberly Snead, a couple who took them into their Parkland home after his mother died, that he stood to inherit at least $800,000 from his deceased parents.
Most of the money would come when he turned 22, Cruz told the Sneads. The couple told the South Florida Sun Sentinel they had seen paperwork that they thought supported the claim Cruz was going to come into a lot of money.
The Public Defender’s Office will share certain material with the new defense attorney, Weekes said, but it will be up to the new lawyers to determine their strategy for Cruz’s defense.
A plea of not guilty to the murders of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day 2018 was entered on Cruz’s behalf.
The teen, on the advice of his public defenders, had offered to plead guilty to the killings if the State Attorney’s Office would take the death penalty off the table and instead agree to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors have declined to do that.
Death penalty cases are notoriously time-consuming and expensive and it is unclear who Cruz could hire to represent him for $400,000.
Even with those assets, Cruz would be hard-pressed to find a lawyer willing to take the case with no guarantee of future payments.
Because there were 34 victims — 17 dead and 17 wounded — it makes the case very unusual and complex.
It is possible that a private lawyer would take on the case, which would create delays, Cruz quickly would run out of money and taxpayers would end up paying for his defense anyway.
Veteran Broward County defense attorneys say $400,000 would not go very far in a death penalty case.
“That money goes pretty fast,” lawyer David Bogenschutz said.
The judge likely could warn the new lawyer that they would not be allowed to withdraw when the money ran out, he said.
Also, the judge has said she wants to move the case expeditiously, so Cruz’s new lawyer would have to “literally close down part of your practice for the next six months to a year to get this case ready, if you can get it ready in a year,” Bogenschutz said
And, he said, a second lawyer would need to join the defense team to argue during the death penalty phase of the trial why the defendant should be spared execution.
Also, numerous expert witnesses would be needed to testify about insanity, psychological impairment and other issues.
“Of that $400,000 you could spend $200,000 on experts easily,” Attorney Hilliard Moldof said.
The new lawyer’s job would be more difficult, Moldof said, because of the stance the public defender’s office took very early on after the massacre — that Cruz would plead guilty if the death penalty were taken off the table.
“I think that was shortsighted for the public defender’s office to concede guilt publicly without some agreement from the state,” he said.
This latest turn of events, Bogenschutz said, could push the State Attorney Office into reconsidering their position on the death penalty. A spokeswoman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office declined to comment on that possibility.
The death penalty decision likely rests on whether this is the kind of case it was made for, Bogenschutz said. “If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ all the other stuff falls by the wayside.”
“This certainly is the type of case the death penalty was designed for,” State Attorney Mike Satz said in a statement issued just days after the school massacre.
A very young lawyer may take on the case to make a name for him or herself, Moldof said. But most others would find it too consuming and not worth it, requiring years of investigation, preparation and possibly even the hiring of additional lawyers.
It’s unclear when or how Cruz, 20, who is locked up in the Broward Main Jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale, will get the money. The public defender’s office is prohibited from helping him.
But that might not really matter, because attorneys for massacre victims will be filing motions quickly to claim the money.
“We’re going to move to take that money,” said attorney Alex Arreaza, who represents Anthony Borges who was one of the most critically injured survivors. He was shot five times in his lung, abdomen and legs and spent two months in the hospital.
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Borges and the family of the late Meadow Pollack already have won default judgments against Nikolas Cruz because he did not mount a defense in their civil suits. Now they will have to ask the court for a specified sum, or “damages.”
“There are a bunch of families going after that money,” Arreaza said. “He’s not going to touch any of that.”
Last year, Cruz had said he wanted any money he was due to go to the victims, Weekes noted.
At a court hearing in April 2018, Cruz said he wanted the victims and their families to choose a charity to give to.
“He would like that money donated to an organization that the victims’ families believe could facilitate healing in our community,” said Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeil.
Lynda Cruz raised Cruz mostly as a single mom after her husband’s death, and had trouble controlling him and his younger brother. Records show she called police often, describing episodes of Nikolas’ punching walls, destroying the house and hitting her with a vacuum hose.
She longed for a proper diagnosis for his problems. Various police, school and mental health records describe him as having attention deficit hyper activity disorder, depression, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and emotional and behavioral issues.