Parkland murder trial would bring too much pain
Spare us this trial. Broward County doesn’t need it. Parkland doesn’t need it. Surely, traumatized survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School savagery ought not be subjected to a grisly public recounting of their ordeal.
The worst moments in Broward history — Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein called it this county’s 9/11 in terms of the trauma inflicted on this community — will beget the most disturbing trial in Broward history.
Drop the death penalty. Plead him out. Stick Nikolas Cruz with a life sentence, no chance of parole. Otherwise every harrowing detail of the Valentine Day atrocity will be anatomized, then sent reverberating through the world’s news outlets. An armada of TV satellite trucks will occupy the streets near the courthouse, much like the media circus that invaded Fort Lauderdale during the court fight over where to bury Anna Nicole Smith.
Unlike that case in 2007, when most news coverage involved the “old” media and was constrained by some semblance of propriety — social media will regurgitate every lurid, gory detail that spills out of the courtroom. (And worse. Finkelstein said he has already heard from unhinged conspiracy theorists — the Alex Jones set — convinced that the Parkland murders were either fake or the nefarious doings of secret government apparatchiks. The crazies will accuse teachers, students and parents of slain kids of fakery.)
Indeed, testimony and crime-scene photos and other evidence introduced at a Nikolas Cruz murder trial will be appalling. More appalling, perhaps, than most of us imagine. “Trust me,” Howard said. “This will be the most awful thing you’ve ever heard.”
And on live TV.
But not until survivors endure months of pre-trial maneuvering. It’ll be at least two years before the case comes to trial, predicted Finkelstein, whose office is defending Cruz. “The prosecution has already listed 983 witnesses,” he said. “Can you imagine how long it’ll take us [the public defender’s office] to depose the witnesses?”
Meanwhile, subsidiary issues around the case are roiling the community. Just Wednesday, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer abandoned the usual purview of a presiding judge and accused the Sun Sentinel and its lawyer of unethical behavior by publishing redacted, but inadvertently revealed records from Nikolas Cruz’s school records. (But the judge didn’t challenge the consensus among constitutional scholars that the Sun Sentinel had a legal right to publish the material.)
It’s that kind of case. A divisive, festering wound. And maybe a deciding issue in the Broward School Board elections, as challengers (including two parents of slain Douglas High School students) intimate that the school district’s dealings with Cruz’s emotional disorders could be blamed for the massacre. As if a few more sessions with high school counselors could have repaired a psychopath, a 19-year-old with a mind that Finkelstein described as “big league broken.”
A broken mind won’t much matter in a murder trial. Juries are reluctant to find even the craziest offenders not guilty by reason of insanity. Especially under Florida’s narrow definition of insanity. But the Broward State Attorney’s Office — at least so far — has refused an offer from the confessed killer’s public defenders to plead guilty in return for a life sentence (with no chance of parole). Prosecutors intend to argue for the death penalty. The Public Defender’s Office is left with no real choice but to go for the long-shot insanity defense. Cruz has no other defense.
That will essentially put Broward institutions, the School District and mental health services (along with the Sheriff ’s Office and the FBI) on trial along with Cruz. “There were red flags everywhere. This was the biggest multisystem failure I’ve seen in my 40 years practicing law,” Finkelstein said. Like I said, a trial will get ugly. Finkelstein has other disturbing apprehensions about prolonging this criminal case, about keeping it in the news. He worries about the contagion effect — the copycat syndrome that reaches back to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. He worries that Cruz might become a perverse role model for the next would-be school killer.
Another perversity: Cruz is receiving fan letters. “Buckets of mail,” Finkelstein said. “And not just from the routine nutjobs, the sad sacks back in their house trailers. But from regular teenagers. Girls sending pictures of themselves in lingerie. Girls who want to have his baby.” Finkelstein said this was the first time in his four-decade legal career that he has felt compelled to keep a defendant’s mail from reaching the jailhouse.
So spare this community another two years sullied by developments related to Nikolas Cruz. Stick the psychopath in prison for the rest of his sorry life. Spare us the gruesome details.
Fred Grimm (@grimm_fred or [email protected]), a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale, has worked as a reporter or columnist in South Florida since 1976.