The Florida judge who oversaw the penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, should be reprimanded for her conduct during the trial, a commission told the state Supreme Court.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer, 46, was accused of "inappropriate behavior" and giving an appearance of bias to the prosecution. An investigation found she "unduly chastised defense counsel, wrongly accused defense counsel of threatening her children" and hugged prosecutors, victims and family members after sentencing, the state Judicial Qualifications Commission wrote in its findings and recommendations for discipline on Monday.
"In limited instances during this unique and lengthy case, Judge Scherer allowed her emotions to overcome her judgment," the commission wrote.
Scherer accepted the commission's findings and agreed to be publicly reprimanded, according to filings by the commission. Scherer announced her resignation in May, effective at the end of this month. Her attorney, Thomas Panza, declined to comment on Tuesday.
Judge chastised defense, showed bias toward prosecutors, commission says
The commission found Scherer violated several rules of judicial conduct during last year's trial. The commission is made up of judges, lawyers and citizens chosen by the governor and is an independent state agency that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct, its website says.
When defense attorneys for Cruz abruptly rested their case at the trial despite a long list of witnesses they had planned to question, Scherer ripped into the defense team.
"I just want to say this is the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case," Scherer told the defense team at the time.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz's lead public defender, objected to Scherer insulting her on the record and said she believed she should be able to defend herself.
"Do that later," the judge answered. "You've been insulting me the entire trial, blatantly. Taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don't like my rulings. Quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated."
The chastising was uncalled for because it was the defense's right to rest, some experts said at the time of the trial.
Scherer also wrongly accused a member of Cruz's team of threatening her children when that attorney said, "Judge, I can assure you that if they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice," the commission said, adding that Scherer ordered that attorney to sit at the back of the room, "effectively denying him the ability to represent his client."
At another point during the sentencing phase of the trial, Scherer also failed to take action to curtail "vitriolic" comments directed at the defense team by family members of the victims, the commission said.
Scherer admitted that her actions toward the defense team were sometimes "not patient, dignified or courteous," the commission said.
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Judge hadn't tried a death penalty case before
Scherer's actions during the trial were under a microscope because of, in part, her relative inexperience. Cruz's trial was her first death penalty case. Cruz was sentenced to life in prison after jurors could not unanimously agree on the death penalty.
The judge was selected for the case randomly by a computer program, without regard to experience with death penalty trials or high-profile cases. The Cruz trial drew international media attention and was live-streamed from the courtroom. Any error on her part could have caused the need for a retrial years later, experts said during the trial.
Emotions ran high throughout the trial as Cruz's sentence was considered for the murders of 14 school children and three adults on Valentine's Day in 2018. It was the deadliest mass shooting to ever go to trial in the United States. Scherer was frequently praised by victims' family members for her behavior during the trial.
The Florida commission said it recognized the highly charged nature of the trial and the pressure on Scherer.
"However, regardless of the gravity of the accusations or level of attention given a matter, the Commission expects that a judge will ensure due process, order and decorum, and act always with dignity and respect to promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary," the commission said.
Scherer had an "unblemished record" before the Parkland trial, the commission said. Her recent resignation announcement was not a condition of an agreement with the commission.
The Florida Supreme Court removed Scherer from another death penalty murder case in April because of her conduct that showed favor toward the prosecution during the Cruz case, citing the hugs she exchanged with prosecutors and family members after Cruz's sentencing.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Judge in Parkland mass shooting case should be reprimanded: Commission