Judge in Parkland High School Shooting Case Reprimanded for Bias
Judges are supposed to be unbiased, but the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission found that a certain judge in the Sunshine State is not the exemplar. The Commission, which oversees Florida state judges' conduct, recommended a formal reprimand for Judge Elizabeth Scherer. If you think you don't know that is, she's the judge who presided over the Parkland High School shooting trial. Since that case was one of the most publicized criminal trials of the past few years, this is no small deal.
A Judge's 'Unprofessionalism'
You may already be familiar with the tragic incident and the subsequent legal proceedings, which involved the criminal trial of the school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, along with civil suits on behalf of the victims against the shooter, the local sheriff, and others. Judge Scherer presided over the criminal trial of Cruz.
But the judge faced allegations that she was "intemperate" with the killer's public defenders and "gave the impression of partiality to the prosecution." The defense counsel spoke the following line at trial: "Judge, I can assure you that if they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice it." This, Judge Scherer took to be a threat to her children. And in widely circulated video footage, she admonished the defendant's attorney for "unprofessionalism" — perhaps ironically.
Even the judge had acknowledged her faults on multiple occasions, including while she was under sworn testimony. For example, she acknowledged that her hugging the prosecutorial team and members of the victims' families was improper. On the other hand, she attempted to defended her actions to some degree by claiming that she had also offered to hug Cruz's public defender.
Commission Cracks Down on Conduct
Using courtroom video footage, court transcripts, and the judge's own testimony, the Commission investigated whether the judge had engaged in "inappropriate behavior" during the penalty-phase and sentencing proceedings of Parkland High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's trial last year. The Commision found that at one point in the legal proceedings, Judge Scherer "unduly chastised" the killer's attorney, "wrongly accused" his attorney of threatening her children, failed to stop "vitriolic statements directed at defense counsel." After sentencing Cruz, the judge also embraced members of the prosecutorial team and the victims' family.
Upon completion of its investigation, the Commission found that Judge Scherer had indeed violated codes of conduct by which members of the judiciary are required to abide. Specifically, she had violated codes of conduct concerning how a judge must "uphold the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary," "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of [a] judge's activities," and perform "the duties of Judicial Office Impartially and Diligently.
The judge didn't contest these findings. Unsurprisingly, the Commission recommended an official reprimand, to which she agreed.
Another Defendant Takes Issue With the Judge
In short, it was determined that Judge Scherer had given the impression of favoring the prosecution. This is all the more serious when consider that this was a trial in which that State was seeking the death penalty for Cruz, at least originally. Last year, the jury could not unanimously decide upon the death penalty, so Cruz was sentenced to life in prison.
But Cruz's was not the only death penalty case that Judge Scherer was involved in. She also presided over the prosecution of two men in Florida, a father and son both named Randy Tunidor, convicted of burglarizing and killing their landlord in 2010. The Tundidors had sought revenge against their landlord, after he had initiated eviction proceedings against the two defendants. The senior Tunidor was been sentenced to death for the murder, while his son was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role as an accessory to the crimes.
The senior Tunidor is appealing his sentence. He's challenging it on the grounds that Judge Scherer's conduct has raised too many questions about her ability to act in an official capacity as a judge without partiality. He also took issue with the judge's previous career as a prosecutor. Judge Scherer had previously worked under Michael Sats, who was the lead prosecutor in the Parkland High shooting case. Tunidor highlights this as another reason the judge would be biased against defendants like Cruz and possibly also himself.
The Commision recently investigated Tundidor's claims—and found them pretty valid. It found that the Judge Scherer's behavior "would create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial proceeding." In other words, the judge seems unable to act in her official capacity as an officer of the court, who is meant to uphold and fair and just legal system.
After the Commission recommended action to the Supreme Court of Florida, the court made a unanimous decision to disqualify the judge from the senior Tunidor's death row case.
The criminal justice system is built on constitutional protections for the rights of the accused. The Sixth Amendment, for example, guarantees defendants a fair and speedy trial before a jury of their peers. Judge Scherer's misconduct threatened the integrity of these important constitutional protections.
So what happens next for the judge, and the many current and potential future defendants that would be under her gavel? Though the Commission has recommended a reprimand and the judge has agreed to it, it seems that the Supreme Court of Florida will make the ultimate decision about her overall standing as a judge and any disciplinary actions.
Read more free resources on related topics from FindLaw's Learn About the Law:
Was this helpful?
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.