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President of Florida defense lawyers critical of Judge Elizabeth Scherer in letter to Chief Judge Jack Tuter

Ernest L. Chang calls judge in Parkland shooter's sentencing hearing 'hostile and demeaning' to defense team
Posted at 9:43 PM, Nov 03, 2022

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has sent a letter to Broward County's top judge "to express dismay at the behavior" of Judge Elizabeth Scherer during the sentencing hearing for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.

Ernest L. Chang on Thursday sent a letter to Chief Judge Jack Tuter about Scherer's "hostile and demeaning treatment of defense counsel," including elected Public Defender Gordon Weekes.

Chang's letter said Scherer's behavior "exposed seemingly deep disdain for the role defense lawyers play in the criminal justice system" and that her "hostility reveals a temperament ill-suited to the criminal bench."

The letter goes on to ask Tuter to "take all appropriate steps to ensure she is not in a position to prejudice any other criminal cases."

Weekes and Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler were scolded by Scherer during Tuesday's hearing. The tense exchange occurred after Weekes asked that Scherer "tap down" on perceived threats directed by the families of the Parkland shooting victims during their victim impact statements.

After Wheeler pressed Scherer and wanted to know if she was going to do anything to prevent further comments directed at his children, Scherer seemed unaware of the issue.

"I didn't even know you had children," she told him. "I don't even know what you're talking about."

Then Wheeler told Scherer that "if they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice it."

That led Scherer to admonish Wheeler, saying he was "out of line" and then excusing him from the defense table.

She then refused to hear from Weekes, who sought a recess to consult with his attorneys, telling him to "go sit down."

WATCH: Judge scolds Parkland shooter defense lawyers

Judge excuses Nikolas Cruz defense attorney, tells public defender to sit down

"The image of a judge relegating an elected public defender and his top assistant to sit in the corner like misbehaving children is offensive and discounts their very vital and difficult role in this system," Chang wrote.

Chang went on to write that the defense lawyers "objected to what they perceived as threats to them and their families."

David Wheeler sent away during Nikolas Cruz sentencing hearing, Nov. 1, 2022
Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler moves back to sit in the audience as Judge Elizabeth Scherer dismisses him during the sentencing hearing for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"Judge Scherer suggested the thinly veiled threats simply be ignored," Chang continued. "When Mr. Wheeler suggested that Judge Scherer would view the comments differently were they about her and her family, she turned that on its head and said the lawyer was threatening her children. Mr. Wheeler never did any such thing."

Chang criticized Scherer for "inflaming the rhetoric rather than maintaining Mr. Weekes civil and measured tone."

Several family members who spoke during Wednesday's hearing used the opportunity to further criticize Cruz's lawyers and took umbrage to Weekes' comments that "no one in this courtroom had to endure what we had to endure."

Fred Guttenberg, who admitted that he had been critical of Scherer during the penalty phase of the trial to determine whether Cruz should be sentenced to life in prison, demanded Weekes' resignation.

WATCH: Fred Guttenberg chastises defense lawyers

Fred Guttenberg chastises Nikolas Cruz defense attorneys during sentencing hearing

"You all can't understand the pain that we go through, but what I will say is that statement yesterday, I actually believe that public defender Weekes believed it," Guttenberg said. "I actually think you all believe it, that you've endured something worse than us, which is why you've behaved the way you have with us."

Guttenberg's daughter was killed in the mass shooting.

The letter to Tuter was sent on the same day that a spokeswoman for the Florida Bar confirmed that Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis, who was part of Cruz's defense team, is the subject of an unspecified investigation.

Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis during hearing in penalty phase of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz's murder trial, Oct. 10, 2022
Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis speaks during a hearing in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Curtis wasn't in court during the verbal exchange or when Cruz was formally sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing 14 students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day in 2018.

Scherer had no choice after a jury couldn't unanimously agree that Cruz should die for his crimes.

After Wednesday's sentencing hearing concluded, Scherer was photographed in the courtroom hugging some of the victims' families and prosecutors.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer hugs Fred Guttenberg after Nikolas Cruz's sentencing hearing, Nov. 2, 2022
Judge Elizabeth Scherer hugs Fred Guttenberg after the sentencing hearing for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Guttenberg's daughter, Jaime, was killed in the 2018 shootings.

It was not immediately clear what action, if any, Tuter would take regarding Scherer's courtroom conduct.