FORT LAUDERDALE — The judge and a public defender in the most notorious South Floridspan trispanl of its time are facing scrutiny for their conduct, not a week after the sentencing trial ended.
The Florida Bar has launched an investigation into Tamara Curtis, an assistant Broward County public defender who is accused of aiming her middle finger and laughing with Nikolas Cruz during the Parkland gunman’s death penalty trial. The nature and subject of the investigation were unavailable Friday.
Simultaneously, a group of Florida criminal defense attorneys lobbed an informal complaint against Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer for shouting at and dismissing members of Cruz’s defense team during his sentencing hearing Tuesday.
“Judge Sherer’s hostility reveals a temperament ill-suited to the criminal bench,” wrote the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in a letter to Broward County Chief Judge Jack Tuter on Thursday.
“We urge you to address this with Judge Scherer and take all appropriate steps to ensure she is not in a position to prejudice any other criminal cases.”
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‘Thinly veiled threats’ prompted attorneys’ concern, judge’s outburst
An explosive moment Tuesday between Scherer and Cruz’s defense attorneys is at the heart of the association’s letter to Broward County’s chief judge.
Before formally sentencing Cruz, 24, to life in prison for the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, survivors and victims’ family members took turns berating the gunman and, at times, the attorneys who defended him.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz’s lead defender, asked Scherer to explain to the victims’ families that criminal defense is a constitutional right afforded to every person accused of a crime — even the deadliest high-school shooter in U.S. history.
“I did my job, and every member of this team did their jobs,” McNeill told the judge. “And we should not personally be attacked for that.”
Scherer noted her objection but said nothing about it to the families, many of whom proceeded to criticize the defense.
Later, Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler called the animosity some speakers aimed at them “highly improper,” accusing the family members of trying to incite violence against the attorneys and their loved ones. Scherer dismissed the concern, telling Wheeler to “sit down and move on” because she hadn’t noticed any threats.
“If they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice it,” Wheeler told her.
The judge considered Wheeler’s remark a threat against her own children. She began to yell at the defense attorney, banishing him and his supervisor, the elected Public Defender Gordon Weekes, to the back of the courtroom — “like misbehaving children,” wrote the association of criminal defense lawyers in its letter to the chief judge.
Upon formally sentencing Cruz, Scherer hugged the prosecutors as they prepared to clear the courtroom.
Weekes asked Scherer to discuss their concerns privately at a sidebar, but she shot him down just as quickly. Her outburst, spannd others like it throughout the trispanl, exposed “a deep disdain” for the role of defense lawyers in the criminal justice system, the association wrote.
The letter is not a formal complaint, said Ernie Chang, president of the association, and Tuter has no obligation to respond. Chang said Friday he had not heard from the chief judge but is attempting to schedule a meeting with him to discuss his concerns.
“From the tone of our letter, it’s clear we feel the judge didn’t act appropriately,” said Chang, who is based in Melbourne. “We hope it has an impact.”
Scherer’s selection to oversee one of the biggest court cases in Broward County’s history was done at random and was a bit of a surprise. Scherer told the Daily Business Review in 2013 that she had no interest in criminal law when she accepted an internship with the Broward County State Attorney’s Office.
Scherer spent 11 years working as a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office, including six in the Career Criminal Trial Unit, before former Gov. Rick Scott in December 2012 appointed her to be a judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court.
Neither she nor Tuter responded to requests for comment Friday.
Dispute at sentencing was not first between Judge Scherer, defense
Tense moments between Scherer and Cruz’s team of public defenders punctuated the proceedings throughout the trial. McNeill motioned for the judge to remove herself in September after the judge shouted at her in court for insulting her “the entire trial, blatantly.”
Scherer accused McNeill of arguing with her, storming out of the courtroom and intentionally arriving late, cutting off McNeill’s attempts to defend herself. McNeill said the judge’s open disdain toward the defense team “infected” the entire trial. Scherer denied the motion to withdraw from the case.
Victims’ family members said during the sentencing hearing this week that they also felt disrespected by the defense team, with some even shooting their own middle fingers at the attorneys.
“Not a single one of you has actually even looked in our direction, made an effort to say ‘We’re sorry for your loss,’ ever,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed at Stoneman Douglas.
Curtis was not at either of the two-day sentencing hearings to hear the complaints lobbed specifically at her.
They stemmed in part from a livestream feed during a pretrial hearing recorded Curtis as she appeared to rub her middle finger against her cheek, then laugh with Cruz, who sat beside her.
Max Schachter, whose son Alex was among Cruz’s victims, shared a link to an article announcing the investigation into Curtis on Twitter.
“KARMA PART 1,” he wrote.
According to The Florida Bar Association, members are investigated when someone — clients, other attorneys or judges — files a complaint alleging misconduct. The Bar may also launch an investigation without receiving a complaint if it learns of potential misconduct through media reports.
Neither Curtis nor Scherer has been disciplined by the Bar in their respective careers, according to an association spokesperson.