Parkland mass murder suspect Nikolas Cruz made an appearance in a Florida court on Sept. 26, as his defense team pushed to interview hundreds of secondary witnesses, part of an effort to spare him the death penalty.
Cruz, who turned 20 on Monday, is charged with charged with killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. His lawyers have said he is willing to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison, but prosecutors reject that and insist he should be executed.
Attorneys acting on behalf of Cruz told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Wednesday, they want to interview potentially hundreds of witnesses to the massacre that prosecutors have thus far placed off-limits, according to Fox WZAW. Cruz lawyers said they do not want to rely on written statements or other documents from prosecutors, but want the opportunity to speak to the 450 or so secondary witnesses.
“We don’t know what this person did. We won’t know until we talk to them,” said Assistant Public Defender David Frankel. “We’re letting them (prosecutors) control what is pertinent and what is not.”
Court documents show these secondary witnesses appear to have minimal involvement in the case.
“They are not entitled for a fishing expedition,” said Prosecutor Jeffrey Marcus, arguing that a prolonged interview process would yield little.
“There is no need for it,” Marcus said. “They have no direct knowledge.”
Scherer rejected defense requests to interview seven of the eight so-called “C” witnesses and ordered Cruz lawyers to begin interviewing witnesses with direct involvement, as well as law enforcement reactions to the shooting.
“We have to start,” the judge said. “Otherwise, this case is going to be pending for three years. Nobody wants that.”
Defense lawyers also claimed either prosecutors or the Broward Sheriff’s Office may have violated Cruz’s rights by improperly releasing his mental health records, the OrlandoSentinel reported.
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill asked the judge to hold either or both the state attorney’s office and sheriff’s office in contempt for the records release to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission earlier this year.
“Any time the State Attorney’s Office or the Broward Sheriff’s Office wants to release records to a third party, those records need to come before the court so that they are authorized for proper release,” McNeill said, according to the OrlandoSentinel.
Scherer had previously ordered the defendant’s medical records released only to investigators and attorneys with direct involvement in the proceedings.
“These are records that are private, federally protected, mental health records. The commission is in possession of records they should not be in possession of,” McNeill said.
Prosecutor Steven Klinger denied culpability on the part of government officials for the records’ release.
“The state and sheriff’s office are well aware of this court’s orders and we will follow this court’s orders,” Klinger said.
Scherer did not rule on the issue, promising to “take it under advisement” for a later decision, OrlandoSentinel reported. She set another hearing for Nov. 15.
Cruz has been charged with committing 17 first-degree murders, and 17 counts of attempted murder.
No trial date has been set yet.