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RIGHT TO COUNSEL

The Parkland school shooter is coming into a small fortune

Nikolas Cruz.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via Reuters
In search of an attorney.
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland, Florida school shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day in 2018, is facing the death penalty. But that is not his only problem right now. Cruz is in need of new counsel.

He’s charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, and because he qualified as indigent, the same county that was prosecuting him has also been paying for his legal defense. He has been represented by the Broward County public defender’s office since April 23, 2018. However, on April 23 of this year—exactly one year after its appointment—the public defender’s office filed a motion to withdraw from the case.

According to the filing, the public defender can no longer represent Cruz. “It has come to the attention of undersigned counsel that Nikolas Cruz is a beneficiary in a MetLife insurance policy and is entitled to half of a death benefit valued at $864,929.17 as of April 23, 2019,” the motion states. It adds that Cruz and the public defender were unaware of the entitlement previously; however, the office is now statutorily barred from representing Cruz because he isn’t indigent.

Motion to withdraw.

The other beneficiary of the life insurance policy is Zachary Cruz, the defendant’s brother, the Miami Herald reports (paywall). The motion doesn’t state who took out the life insurance policy but it was likely Lynda Cruz, the brothers’ adoptive mother, who died in 2017 and whose estate is in probate now. And the court has yet to grant the public defender’s motion, though it will have to if indeed he’s got hundreds of thousands of dollars coming to him.

For the families of the many victims of the school shooting, and for the countless others who were traumatized by the event, the news that Cruz is coming into a small fortune may leave a sour taste. The only consolation perhaps is that their tax money will no longer be funding his defense.

Cruz confessed to the crimes, but Broward County state attorney Michael Satz last year refused to accept his guilty plea—offered in exchange for a life sentence—arguing that Cruz is a prime candidate for capital punishment (paywall). Cruz’s public defenders argued that seeking the death penalty would only punish the grieving families and students of Parkland, who would be forced to go through the pain of a trial and relive the agony of the massacre again. But Satz was not convinced.

The trial is expected to begin in 2020, but given the severity of the offenses and the high possibility of a death sentence, the proceedings may be delayed. Even if the defendant finds a new attorney immediately, that lawyer will have much work to do before taking this controversial case to court.

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