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Fallout from Parkland Shooter’s Sentencing Has Already Begun with Investigation of Public Defender and Complaint About Judge’s ‘Hostility’

Tamara Curtis

Nikolas Cruz (L), Tamara Curtis (R)

A Broward County assistant public defender who was called out by the trial judge for laughing and flipping the bird in court during Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty trial is now under investigation. Meanwhile, the judge who yelled at and humiliated the defense more broadly is the subject of a judicial conduct complaint by a state public defenders organization.

Tamara L. Curtis, whose behavior in court was roundly condemned by Parkland victims’ parents, is currently the subject of a “pending” investigation, the Florida Bar’s communications director Jennifer Krell Davis confirmed to Law&Crime.

Davis did not specify what conduct exactly is under investigation, but the Florida Bar’s professional conduct guidelines do include a section on trial conduct and courtroom decorum.

“A lawyer always should interact with parties, counsel, witnesses, jurors or prospective jurors, court personnel, and judges with courtesy and civility, and should avoid undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to the court or the proceedings,” the rule begins. “Counsel shall admonish all persons at counsel table that gestures, facial expressions, audible comments, or the like, as manifestations of approval or disapproval during the testimony of witnesses or at any other time, absolutely are prohibited.”

Law&Crime reached out to Curtis for comment on the investigation.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer is facing a complaint of her own, however.

Earlier in the day, Law&Crime reported on the largely negative response the judge received for hugging prosecutors after sentencing Cruz on Wednesday to life in prison without parole. But the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (FACDL) focused on Scherer’s “hostility” to the defense as displayed on Tuesday.

The group accused the judge of violating Canon 1 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, which states a judge “shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.”

“An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved,” the relevant rule says. “The provisions of this Code should be construed and applied to further that objective.”

In a letter to 17th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Jack Tuter, FACDL said it was “troubled” and dismayed that Judge Scherer displayed “hostile and demeaning treatment of defense counsel, one of whom is the elected Public Defender” is seeming “deep disdain for the role defense lawyers play in the criminal justice system.”

Before she was an elected judge, Scherer was a prosecutor for more than a decade under Michael J. Satz, the longtime State Attorney who headed the prosecution in the Cruz case.

FACDL said that Scherer’s “hostility reveals a temperament ill-suited to the criminal bench” and that her “comments and actions were not only offensive but were also ultimately detrimental to the integrity of the judiciary and the judicial system.”

In particular, the group cited Scherer “summarily dismissing” Public Defender Gordon Weekes despite his “respectful and calm demeanor.” The letter also points to Scherer telling chief assistant public defender David Wheeler to “go sit down.”

FACDL said the judge rudely and animatedly sent the public defenders to the corner as if they were children when they complained about “thinly veiled threats” during victim impact statements.

“The irony of Judge Sherer’s [sic] approach is that she became rude and animated in response to a straw man which she herself had established,” the letter said. “The attorneys objected to what they perceived as threats to them and their families.”

“When Mr. Wheeler suggested that Judge Scherer would view the comments differently were they about her and her family, she turned that on its head and said the lawyer was threatening her children,” the group said. “Mr. Wheeler never did any such thing.”

The group’s president Ernest L. Chang urged Chief Judge Tuter to “take all appropriate steps to ensure [Scherer] is not in a position to prejudice any other criminal cases.”

[Image via Law&Crime Network]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.