FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida judge who gained a national profile while presiding over the Parkland school shooting trial announced Wednesday that she is resigning June 30 to pursue unspecified career opportunities.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer rose in prominence when she oversaw the televised penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz. He received a life sentence last year after a divided jury was unable to agree on the death penalty for the 2018 mass killing of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“It has been a privilege to serve the people of the State of Florida for over 10 years,” Scherer wrote in her brief resignation letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The resignation was first reported by Court TV.
Scherer, a 46-year-old former prosecutor, was appointed to the bench in 2012. Broward County’s computerized system randomly assigned her Cruz’s case shortly after the shooting. It was her first murder trial.
Her handling of the case drew frequent praise from the parents and spouses of the victims, who said she treated them with professionalism and kindness, but her clashes with Cruz’s attorneys and others sometimes drew criticism from legal observers.
Before the trial, she criticized two reporters from the Sun Sentinel newspaper for publishing a sealed Cruz educational record that they obtained legally. She threatened to tell the paper what it could and couldn’t print, but never did; legal experts say such a move would have been unconstitutional.
Scherer also had frequent heated arguments with Cruz’s lead public defender, Melisa McNeill. Those boiled over for the first time when McNeill and her team suddenly rested their case after calling only a small fraction of their expected witnesses. Scherer called it “the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case,” though the defense has no obligation to call all of its witnesses or announce its plans in advance.
McNeill countered angrily, “You are insulting me on the record in front of my client,” before Scherer told her to stop. She then laid into her.
“You’ve been insulting me the entire trial,” Scherer barked at 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.”
The two clashed again during Cruz’s sentencing hearing in November over the verbal attacks some victims’ family members made against the defense team during their courtroom statements. Scherer refused to curtail the statements and ejected one of McNeill’s assistants after he complained.
After sentencing Cruz, 24, to life without parole as required, Scherer left the bench and hugged members of the prosecution and the victims’ families.
That action led the Florida Supreme Court last month to remove her from overseeing post-conviction motions of another defendant, Randy Tundidor, who was sentenced to death for murder in the 2019 killing of his landlord. One of the prosecutors in that case had also been on the Cruz team, and during a hearing in the Tundidor case a few days after the Cruz sentencing, Scherer asked the prosecutor how he was holding up.
The court said Scherer’s actions gave at least the appearance that she could not be fair to Tundidor.