The death penalty trial of the man charged with killing 17 people at a South Florida high school is off indefinitely because of restrictions related to the coronavirus outbreak, a judge said Monday.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said in a hearing held remotely that it's not even clear when the courthouse will reopen to the public. It has been closed since March 16 to everyone but essential personnel.
“We have to take it one day at a time, quite frankly,” Scherer said. “We're not there yet. When we are, I don't know.”
Nikolas Cruz, 21, is charged with fatally shooting 17 people and wounding 17 others with an AR-15 rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day 2018. His lawyers say he would plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence, but prosecutors are forging ahead with a trial.
Cruz did not appear at the hearing.
One of Cruz's court-appointed lawyers, Gabriel Ermine, said there have been other virus-related delays because two dozen witness depositions were postponed and numerous legal motions have yet to be filed. In addition, defense experts seeking to interview Cruz about mental health issues and related topics have not had access to him in the Broward County Jail.
“We are ready to have them go in once everything is safe,” Ermine said.
A complicating factor, again related to the coronavirus, is when it would be permissible to allow possibly hundreds of prospective jurors to gather at the courthouse to be questioned about their views of one of the highest-profile cases in Florida history. Scherer said that is impossible now, and another issue is how to keep social distancing and masks for jurors.
Scherer said she hopes “to begin as soon as it's safe to do so.” But no decisions have been made on the projected start of a trial.
Broward County has had more than 11,300 coronavirus cases and 373 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Scherer set another status hearing for Aug. 25 to assess where things stand.