ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The 2018 Florida school massacre in which 17 people were killed and 17 others wounded is still not close to going to trial, attorneys said at a hearing Friday.
Defense lawyers for Nikolas Cruz said there remain difficulties related to the coronavirus pandemic with getting mental health experts into the Broward County jail to interview him in detail. The experts also do not want to travel to Florida until the virus abates.
A video or Zoom link is not a viable option, said Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill.
“They need to be in person with any client they are assessing,” she said. “We are still preparing this case for trial.”
Cruz, 22, faces the death penalty if convicted of the Valentine's Day 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. His lawyers have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence, but prosecutors want the case to go to trial.
Although death penalty cases typically take years to get to trial in Florida, the Cruz case illustrates the difficulties the judicial system has faced with the coronavirus pandemic. Some jurisdictions have held limited in-person trials, but others have not.
The chief judge in Miami-Dade County, for example, recently decided there will be no jury trials there until February at the earliest. In Broward County, where the Cruz case is pending, the courthouse has essentially been closed for months.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has declined to set a trial date for Cruz, noting Friday that the case is in a “wait and see” mode for now. She set another status hearing for Jan. 25.
Meanwhile, a statewide grand jury empaneled after the Parkland shooting issued a third interim report urging creation of a commission to closely examine mental health issues that can cause violence in schools, among many other problems.
Cruz was identified early in school as having a propensity for violence and authorities were frequently called to his home over the years. But little was done before the Parkland shooting despite these warning signs.
“Mental health issues have the peculiar potential to spiral out over time into criminal acts and violent behavior resulting in serious injury and loss of life,” the grand jury report says.
The report adds that Florida's system of treating mental health problems is woefully underfunded and that people seeking help face a “patchwork” of options that often conflict with each other.
“To put it bluntly, our mental health care system — if one can even call it that — is a mess,” the report says.
The grand jury's final report on mental health issues in Florida is expected in April.