FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A judge ordered the public defenders representing the former student charged with the Florida high school massacre to stay on his case Wednesday while she determines if he remains legally indigent as he may be eligible for a large payout from his late mother.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer ordered Broward County public defenders to keep representing Nikolas Cruz while she determines if he'll collect about $432,000 before taxes from Lynda Cruz's annuity and whether that would be enough for him to hire private attorneys.
His public defenders argued that simply by being eligible for that payout, he is no longer poor enough to be represented by them on charges that he murdered 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, and wounded 17 others. Both prosecutors and victims' families objected, saying he will never get the money because of lawsuits and a change of attorneys would delay his trial, scheduled for early next year.
Assistant Public Defender Diane Cuddihy told Judge Scherer that under state law, her office can only represent those who are too poor to hire private attorneys. She said given that he is entitled to the money, she and her colleagues believe they can no longer represent him.
Cruz, 20, has said he wants any money he receives from his mother or her estate be given to the victims' families, but Cuddihy cited a previous court ruling that said it would "be a fraud on the courts and taxpayers" to allow a defendant to voluntarily transfer money in order to remain indigent. Sitting at the defense table, Cruz once vigorously shook his head when it was suggested he might get the annuity money.
Attorney Jeannine Jacobson, an attorney for MetLife, said the sides have mischaracterized Lynda Cruz's policy as life insurance. She said it is an annuity worth more than $863,000 as a lump-sum payment that Cruz would split with his younger brother if they file a claim, which neither has done.
Because it is annuity, any payout would be taxed - online calculators indicate Cruz would net about $300,000 - and he can waive his share, giving it to his brother. Lynda Cruz died about three months before the attack of pneumonia and the Cruz brothers could have accessed the annuity before the shooting. Cruz's father died more than a decade earlier.
Prosecutors and victims' families opposed the public defenders' removal, saying Cruz will lose any money he gets to the victims' families. Assistant State Attorney Joel Silvershein told Scherer she also needs to consider the time and money already spent that would be wasted if Cruz gets new attorneys.
David Brill, who represents the father of slain victim Meadow Pollack, told Scherer that delaying the trial as Cruz's new attorneys prepare would cause additional pain to the victims' families. Under the Florida Constitution, victims have a right to a speedy trial, just like the accused.
"The defendant has admitted to massacring 17 innocent people and injuring 17 more, caused countless others to suffer PTSD and essentially destroyed the peace and tranquility of an entire community," Brill said. "There is something fundamentally wrong to allowing him to use the money for private attorneys this late in the game."
Cruz, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit with his wrists and ankles shackled, dropped his face into his hands and appeared to cry as Debbie Hixon, the widow of athletic director Chris Hixon, begged Scherer not to do anything that would delay the trial.
"To make us wait longer for a judgment, it is just unbearable," Hixon said. "It is long enough."
After the hearing, Hixon told reporters she doesn't understand why it has taken so long to bring Cruz to trial as there is no question of his guilt. She said she doesn't want any of his money.
"I don't want crap from him," she said. "I just want him to get the death penalty."
Cruz pleaded not guilty but his attorneys said he would plead guilty for a life sentence. Prosecutors want the death penalty.
Cruz spent several years in and out of schools for children with emotional and behavioral problems, but attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas before being kicked out about a year before the attack.
Scherer said she would rule soon, but gave no specific date.