Nikolas Cruz, who is accused of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead in 2018, could be dropped by his public defenders after they announced that he became a beneficiary of a nearly million-dollar insurance policy — a shift that may cause the case to be further delayed.
Cruz’s public defenders filed a motion in court on Wednesday asking to be removed from the case, writing that their office had learned that Cruz is entitled to half a death benefit of $864,929 from a MetLife insurance policy, for which he became eligible on Tuesday. After the filing, one of his attorneys said they wanted the courts to decide if they should stay on the case.
The insurance policy was for Cruz’s adoptive mother Lynda Cruz, who died in late 2017, just months before the massacre in Parkland.
But it is not certain that Cruz will ever see any of the insurance money or actually change his attorneys, according to Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender, who is representing him.
Finkelstein said the issue is complicated because Cruz is also facing civil lawsuits filed by families of the shooting’s victims.
“The victims’ families’ lawyers are probably going to move to freeze those assets,” Finkelstein said in an interview Tuesday, noting that he had been told that at least two of the families of victims planned to do so. “Because of their significant trauma and awful loss, they’re entitled under the law to receive monetary damages. So if they freeze those assets, then he doesn’t have access to them.”
An attorney for one of the victims’ relatives wrote in an email Tuesday that they were considering their options in the case.
Finkelstein said Cruz’s lawyers learned about the policy on Tuesday afternoon and then had to get documentation to verify it. Because they are public defenders, they cannot represent someone with access to hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
But since Cruz is a defendant both in the murder case and the civil cases, Finkelstein said, it is unclear what will happen next.
A judge in a civil case could freeze his assets, while a judge in the murder case could determine that Cruz is not indigent and needs other attorneys, Finkelstein said. Another possibility, he said, is that Cruz’s assets are frozen and the courts determine that Cruz remains indigent and retains his public defenders.
“It could go a number of different ways,” Finkelstein said. “And none of them are within our control. We felt that we had the legal and the ethical duty to notify the court about these assets, and now the court’s got to decide, is he still indigent? And if not, we’re off. If so, then it just proceeds as it has been.”
Police said Cruz, who was taken into custody soon after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting, quickly confessed to carrying out the massacre. He has been indicted on 17 counts of premeditated murder and another 17 counts of attempted murder.
But the case has yet to be scheduled for a trial despite the efforts of Judge Elizabeth Scherer, a circuit court judge in Broward County, who has urged lawyers on both sides to speed up their work so that the community and the families of victims don’t face the additional burden of a drawn-out legal process.
The case has already produced more than 4 million pages of discovery, Finkelstein said, noting that the issues around the insurance policy could lead to more delays.
Cruz’s public defenders had offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for him being sentenced to life in prison without parole, but prosecutors say they are seeking the death penalty. Earlier this year, both sides said they expected the case to proceed to trial as soon as next year.
The insurance policy will also benefit Zachary Cruz, his 19-year-old brother, who lives in Virginia.
Nikolas and Zachary share a biological mother, and were adopted by the Cruz family as infants. Their father, Roger Cruz, died of a heart attack in 2004, leaving their mother Lynda to raise the boys on her own. She died in November 2017 after a bout of pneumonia, leaving Nikolas and Zachary in the care of a former neighbor.
Within a few months of the shooting, Zachary left Florida under the supervision of a couple, Mike Donovan and Richard Moore, the founders of bond-servicing company Nexus Services, who heard about his situation in the news.
While Donovan and Moore have incorporated Zachary into their business and helped him launch an anti-bullying organization, they have financed his trips back to Florida so that he can attend his brother’s court appearances.
Finkelstein, the public defender, said his office has no preference on whether to remain on the case, which is expected to lead to an emotionally grueling, high-profile trial.
“We’re a public defender’s office; this is what we do,” he said. “We represent anybody and everybody we’re appointed to. But we do have a legal obligation to notify the court when assets appear. And we were shocked.”