This week we saw Nicholas Cruz, the infamous school shooter who killed seventeen people- children and teachers, and shot an additional seventeen people, at the school in Parkland, Broward County, plead guilty, which placed the case into the penalty phase in the Florida "dance with death" scheme for the death penalty.
Was the move a good one? None other than Roy Black (cue Star Wars storm trooper music, which is surely what prosecutors hear when Mr. Black strides into a courtroom for trial) opined in the DBR that the move was wrong. Rumpole of the Bailey famously said "never ever ever plead guilty." Mr. Black agrees. (Perhaps he has something to do with this blog? Nah. Highly unlikely).
Other commentators including the REGJB's own Phil Reizenstein have praised the move in the media, saying the the defense had no path to an acquittal and the plea allows the defense to argue at the sentencing phase that the defendant has remorse, and has accepted responsibility and pled to crimes mandating a life prison sentence. In the same Ovalle/Herald article Gail Levine, late of major crimes at the Dade SAO disagreed, opining that the delay between the two phases of the trial would allow the horrors of the crimes to recede somewhat in the jurors' minds. Levine also said the strategy would not work unless Cruz decided to testify, which of course would open himself up to what would surely be one of the most devastating cross examinations in modern legal history.
Clearly some very experienced lawyers see the Cruz strategy differently.
So what say you?
As a general principle we agree with Mr. Black. Not only should a defendant never plead guilty to what is potentially the maximum sentence, we also never approve of the strategy of admitting certain charges during the trial, while contesting others. The thought behind this strategy is that by admitting some charges, the defense "buys credibility" with the jury. Balderdash. It rarely if ever works.
But the Cruz case is almost unique in its horror, devastation, and loss of life. And the prospect of the 17 survivors who are listed as victims of attempted first degree murder, testifying about the horrors they experienced of being shot and seeing their friends and teachers murdered, may well be more devastating testimony than the testimony about the victims who died.
The Cruz defense is in one of the worst positions we have ever seen a case. And their client did himself no favors with his disjointed statement to the families during his plea, during which he said he was pleading guilty for them.
And on a separate issue, jury selection is set to begin January 4, 2022. Over/under on how long it takes to seat a jury? We say 70 days, and it goes over.