Parkland School Shooting Trial – The Defense Rests its Case

September 21, 2022 News & Announcements, Violent Crimes

More information has been published regarding the ongoing trial against Nikolas Cruz, the defendant in the Parkland high school massacre that took place in 2018. Cruz pled guilty to the murder charges in October 2021. Now the decision must be made whether to sentence him to life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.

Cruz’s defense team has just shocked the courtroom with their newest announcement, which we will cover below. We will also provide information on the process of courtroom trials.  

Defense’s Change of Plans

On September 14th, 2022, Nikolas Cruz’s defense team left the courtroom in shock after it decided to rest its case. The defense had originally planned to call upon 80 witnesses, but by Wednesday they had only questioned 26 witnesses. Lead defense attorney Melissa McNeill suddenly announced that they were resting their case, which led to both frustration and confusion from the judge and prosecution.

“We were waiting for 40 more witnesses,” said lead prosecutor Mike Satz.

In a video posted from the courtroom, you can see both the prosecution and judge react to the abrupt decision to rest the case. Without the jury present, Judge Elizabeth Scherer criticized McNeill for “another day wasted.”

The following was the response from Judge Elizabeth Scherer:

“Even if you didn’t make your decision until this morning, to have 22 people, plus all of the staff and every attorney, march into court and be waiting as if it’s some kind of game—now I have to send them home. The state’s not ready, they’re not going to have a witness ready. We have another day wasted. I honestly, I have never experienced [this] level of unprofessionalism in my career.”

McNeill attempted to defend herself from the judge’s response by saying, “you’re insulting me on the record in front of my client, and I believe that I should be able to defend myself.”

Judge Scherer stopped McNeill, quickly responding, “you’ve been insulting me the entire trial, blatantly. Taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don’t like my rulings. So, quite frankly, this has been long overdue.”

Scherer questioned Cruz directly about his defense team’s decision to rest its case, making sure he understood the choice to not allow any more witnesses to take the stand in his defense. She then read out the names of the witnesses who were meant to take the stand, including Cruz’s brother.

“Are you comfortable with the decision?” Scherer asked Cruz.

“Yes,” Cruz responded.

Father of one shooting victim, Fred Guttenberg, tweeted his response to the defense resting its case: “I am in complete shock. That is all I will say about the trial at this time. Once the jury renders its verdict, I will have much to say.”

According to Judge Scherer, the rebuttal from the prosecution could take place as soon as September 27th and closing arguments could take place as early as October 10th.  Prosecutors are asking that the jury decides on the death penalty, which requires a unanimous verdict. If the jury unanimously votes in favor of the death penalty, then it is the judge’s decision to either agree with sentence or sentence Cruz to life in prison instead.

To find out more about the ongoing trial for Nikolas Cruz, read our blog post here.

The Trial Process

A criminal trial is a structured process in which all of the evidence from the case is presented to a jury. The jury must decide whether they believe that the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charges against them.

During a criminal trial, the prosecution team will use both evidence and witnesses to prove that the defendant was guilty of said crime. The defense team will represent the defendant and use the same tactics to try and prove that their client is innocent.

The following is a list of the trial structure:

  • Jury Selection – One of the first steps in a criminal trial is to select a team of jurors. The jury is made up of 12 individuals who represent all types of people, races, and cultures. Both the defense and prosecution teams are able to question the potential jurors about any potential biases that would excuse them from serving on the jury team.

To read more about the right to a jury trial, visit our page here.

  • Opening Statements – The prosecution and defense teams will tell their account of the events. The opening statements are typically brief outlines, excluding any evidence or witnesses. The prosecution will make the first opening statement because the Government carries the burden of trying to prove that the defendant did commit the crime.
  • Presentment of Cases
    • Witness Examination – The prosecution will begin the examination of witnesses, which can last for several days. Evidence can be introduced during this step, like a weapon or something used at the crime scene. The defense will follow with a cross-examination or by questioning the same witness. Cross-examination allows the defense to create doubt in the credibility of the witness. After the defense finishes, the prosecution can ask any final questions or clarify any testimony to the jury. So, the full process of witness examination includes direct examination, cross-examination, and redirect examination.

Next, the defense has the opportunity to present its own witnesses. The defense can choose whether they want the defendant to testify or not. There is no burden for the defendant to prove that they are innocent. However, the defendant generally has the burden of proof when asserting an affirmative defense.

  • Objections – During direct or cross-examination, either side can make an objection to any of the evidence or questions to the judge. The following are examples of common objections:
    • Hearsay – If a witness provided a statement that they did not see or hear firsthand, but instead learned about it secondhand through another person, a document, or through the news, an objection can be made.
    • Relevance – Any of the testimony or evidence shown at trial must be relevant to the specific case, and if they are not the attorneys can object due to relevance.

If the defense or prosecution objects during the presentment of the case, it is the judge’s responsibility to decide the outcome of the objection. The judge has the option to “sustain” the object so the action stops, or they can “overrule,” which allows the action to continue.

  • Closing Arguments – After the defense team has completed their side of testimonies and cross-examination, the defense rests its case. That means the defense and prosecution must prepare for closing arguments.

A closing argument is the last opportunity for the prosecution and the defense to speak to the jury. The attorneys on both sides will summarize all of the evidence and testimony and finally request that the jury come back with either a guilty or not guilty verdict.

  • Jury Deliberations and Announcement of the Verdict – The jury enters the process of deliberation, where they discuss whether they believe the defendant is guilty or innocent. During deliberation, no one from the trial is capable of contacting any of the jury members without the judges and lawyers. If there are any questions or concerns from the jury, they must first write a note to the judge, which will be read in court with both sides present. If it is a federal criminal trial, then the jury must reach a unanimous decision for the verdict in order to convict the defendant.

Once there is an agreement on the verdict, the judge, attorneys, and defendant will all be notified in an open court. If the defendant is found not guilty, they are usually free to go home. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will then announce the sentence for their conviction.

To find out more about the trial procedures, read the U.S. Department of Justice’s page here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime that could go to trial, it is imperative to seek out a skilled defense attorney in your area. Navigating the legal world can be stressful, which is why it’s important to find an attorney you can trust. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients all across the state for various charges. We vow to stand in your corner and fight for your freedom. Call us today at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message for a free consultation.

Written by Karissa Key

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