Park­land mur­der trial would bring too much pain

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - Fred Grimm

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.

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