Meet lawyers, judge in Parkland shooter’s sentencing trial

Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 12:08 AM EDT
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Now that a jury has been seated in the sentencing trial of Nikolas Cruz, prosecutors and defense attorneys will spend the next 16 weeks making their case for the fate of the convicted Parkland school shooter.

A jury of seven men and five women will be tasked with deciding whether Cruz should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Cruz pleaded guilty in October to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder stemming from the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

With the trial expected to last four months, there will be plenty of recognizable — and maybe some unfamiliar — faces in the Broward County courtroom. Here are some of the key players:

Nikolas Cruz: The convicted murderer

Nikolas Cruz, now 23, pleaded guilty to all charges in October, saying the words “guilty” out loud as each count was read in open court. He then offered a jumbled and confusing apology to the families of the victims, even though he was facing Judge Elizabeth Scherer the entire time.

Elizabeth Scherer: The circuit judge

Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer became a household name when she began presiding over the Parkland school shooting case.

Scherer, who earned her bachelor's degree at Florida State University and her law degree at the University of Miami, was appointed to the circuit court bench in 2012 by then-Gov. Rick Scott, replacing retired Judge David Krathen. She was 36 at the time.

Before becoming a judge, Scherer previously worked as an assistant state attorney in Broward County under Mike Satz, who will appear before her in court as lead prosecutor.

Her father preceded her in fame. Noted Republican lawyer Bill Scherer, who is a founding partner at Fort Lauderdale-based Conrad & Scherer, represented former President George W. Bush in the Broward County recount during the 2000 presidential election.

Mike Satz: The lead prosecutor

Mike Satz was the longtime elected state attorney in Broward County, serving in that capacity from 1976 until stepping down in January 2021 after he decided not to seek re-election.

Although he's no longer the state attorney, Satz vowed to personally prosecute Cruz for the atrocities of Parkland -- and he's got plenty of experience.

Satz previously served as chief of the homicide unit at the Broward County state attorney's office.

Other notable trials that he successfully prosecuted were the three men convicted of killing Broward Sheriff's Office Deputy Brian Tephford (a lengthy trial that lasted nearly two years, the longest case ever tried in Broward County's history) and convincing a jury to recommend death for the man who forced two Waffle House employees in Davie into a walk-in freezer before executing them in 2002.

Melisa McNeill: The public defender

Often the most vocal member of the defense team, Melisa McNeill has been on the headline-making end of her office's quest to save Cruz's life.

An assistant public defender in Broward County, McNeill successfully argued that prosecutors and their witnesses shouldn't refer to Cruz as an "animal" or "that thing" and that he should only be called by his name or as "the defendant" during trial. Scherer sided with McNeill, though McNeill's attempts to prohibit the terms "killer" or "murdered" were deemed not to be derogatory in a murder trial.

She has successfully spared the life of convicted murderers over the course of her 20-year career, notably Fidel Lopez, who disemboweled his girlfriend after she screamed her ex-husband's name twice during sex. McNeill convinced Lopez to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.

McNeill made headlines for her contentious exchange with Scherer during a March 2019 hearing, accusing the judge of being "disingenuous" and "misquoting" her. That led Scherer to tell McNeill that she was "being disrespectful."

Jeff Marcus: The prosecution team

Veteran prosecutor Jeff Marcus has served at Satz's chief assistant since 2013. A graduate of the University of Florida law school, Marcus has sat with Satz through some major murder trials, including the prosecution of Tephford's killers.

Carolyn McCann: The prosecution team

Carolyn McCann has worked for the Broward County state attorney's office since 1989. Her appellate experience was on full display during Cruz's confession in open court. She was the prosecutor who asked Scherer for clarity on the record after Cruz told the judge he believed it was her decision as to whether he lives or dies. McCann wanted to make sure that Cruz understood it would be up to a jury — not the judge — "so that we don't have an issue later on appeal." McCann began her law career at the Florida attorney general's office.

Nicole Chiappone: The prosecution team

Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone previously argued that Cruz himself used some of the terms McNeill wanted barred during the Parkland shooter's trial. Prior to joining the Broward County state attorney's office, Chiappone was a prosecutor in Alachua County.

David Wheeler: The defense team

David Wheeler is the chief assistant public defender who has been involved with not only Cruz’s murder trial, but also the charges stemming from a November 2018 jail brawl. Wheeler, who was by Cruz’s side when he pleaded guilty to the murders, was hospitalized with an undisclosed illness just before jury selection in Cruz’s jail brawl trial began, forcing him to withdraw from the case.

Gabe Ermine: The defense team

A former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who later joined the Broward County public defender's office, Gabe Ermine was the lead defense attorney in the trial of Peter Avsenew, who was sentenced to death for killing a Wilton Manors couple on Christmas 2010 and vowed to kill again unless he was executed. Avsenew recently had his conviction overturned and will be getting a new trial because of a judge's decision not to let the defendant's mother see her son during her testimony — a ruling that Ermine objected to at the time. The Delray Beach resident ran for a vacant county court seat in Palm Beach County in 2018 but lost to Ashley Zuckerman.

Tamara Curtis: The defense team

Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis revealed in court that the lawyers who are defending Cruz have received threats. She wanted the judge to block the names of the jurors from being released to the public until a "reasonable time" after the trial.

Casey Secor: The defense team

The newest member of the defense team is Casey Secor, who came from South Carolina, where he served as an assistant public defender. From 2011 to 2016, he exclusively practiced death penalty defense in South Carolina and Louisiana. He’s been tapped to lend his expertise in death penalty cases to Cruz’s defense team and is considered so valuable that McNeill unsuccessfully argued that jury selection couldn’t move forward with his presence.

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