Attorneys representing Nikolas Cruz abruptly rested their case, having called only a portion of their expected witnesses.
The move ignited tensions in the courtroom as Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer worked to accommodate the unexpected change.
Cruz’s defense team had initially told Scherer and the prosecution they planned to call a total of 80 witnesses. During the 11 days of trial devoted to building their case, the lawyers called 25 witnesses.
The 12-member jury and 10 alternates had not yet entered the courtroom when lead attorney Melisa McNeill announced the defense was resting.
Scherer and McNeil then got into a heated argument, with the judge saying the lack of warning was “the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case.”
Scherer said McNeil’s conduct was inconsiderate of all involved.
“To have 22 people march into court and be waiting as if it is some kind of game. I have never experienced such a level of unprofessionalism in my career,” said Scherer while raising her voice, according to AP News.
“You are insulting me on the record in front of my client,” McNeil responded before being cut off by the judge.
“You’ve been insulting me the entire trial,” Scherer told McNeill. “Arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don’t like my rulings. So, quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated.”
When asked by the judge if the prosecution was ready to begin its rebuttal, lead prosecutor Mike Satz threw his hands up, laughed, and said “no” because they had been “waiting for 40 more witnesses.”
Scherer has now delayed the trial by one week to give the prosecution time to prepare. The trial is tentatively scheduled to resume on Sept. 27, per Rolling Stone.
The majority of the testimonies from defense witnesses focused on Cruz’s early childhood development and home life. Shameka Stanford, a speech and language pathologist who interviewed the school shooter and reviewed his history, testified on Aug. 29. She told the jury that at the age of 11, Cruz spoke at the level of a 6 1/2-year old to an 8 1/2-year-old and that “there was a severe presence of language impairment, specifically with problem solving.”
Stanford said the delays in his speech meant Cruz “could never really connect with anyone.”
Lynn Rodriguez, who served as Cruz’s Exceptional Student Education teacher in the third and fourth grades, told the jury that “he did not blend well with other students.”
Another witness, Cruz’s biological sister Danielle Woodard, testified that their mother abused drugs and alcohol and that their home was a hostile environment.
“She introduced me to a life that no child should be introduced to,” she told the jury, per CNN. “She had no regard for my life or his life.”
Dr. Kenneth Jones, one of the nations leading fetal alcohol syndrome researchers, testified on Sept. 13 that Cruz’s biological mother drank more than any other mother he had documented – six drinks per week for two weeks or three drinks in a sitting twice. He also testified that he found upon his examination that Cruz does have the characteristic of someone with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder but does not have the physical traits of someone with fetal alcohol syndrome, reports ABC News.
Cruz’s defense team has argued that the shooter’s childhood abuse damaged his brain development and impaired his cognitive abilities, ultimately leading to his decision to attack Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in February of 2018.
McNeill, a public defender, told the jury on Aug. 22, “In telling you Nik’s story, in telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life… That is called mitigation. Mitigation is any reason that you believe that the death penalty is not an appropriate penalty in this case.”
Cruz has already pleaded guilty to the 17 counts of murder brought against him for the 17 people killed four years ago.
The trial will determine if he is given the death penalty or sentenced to life in prison. The jury must agree to capital punishment for every individual count brought against Cruz. If the jury is divided on one count, he will be sentenced to life in prison for all 17 charges.