FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Parkland school shooting defendant Nikolas Cruz will be allowed to skip many future court hearings as his planned trial draws closer in the 2018 massacre that left 17 people dead, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer granted the hearing waiver request by lawyers for Cruz, who faces the death penalty if convicted. They say Cruz's continued presence in court attracts media attention that further traumatizes victims and the public as a whole.
In his most lengthy comments in court to date, Cruz told the judge he agrees with the decision. He still would likely appear at hearings on the most important issues, Scherer said.
"Do you understand there are certain things you could miss? You need to understand things could come up that affect your rights and you are waiving your appearance?" the judge asked.
"Yes," answered Cruz, shaggy-haired and dressed in red jail garb, adding a bit later. "I understand fully."
Cruz, 20, is accused of the 17 slayings and with wounding 17 others in the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year. Trial is tentatively planned for January 2020.
Broward State Attorney Mike Satz said he was concerned about excluding Cruz from many pretrial hearings even if they generally deal with purely legal issues. He indicated it could become fodder for an appeal later, such as a claim that Cruz wasn't informed about something with a major impact on his defense.
"We may be arguing legal matters but the defendant has a right to be here. I'm just trying to protect the record now and in the future," Satz said.
Defense attorneys also raised concerns about the tentative early January trial date, saying they still have more than 300 key witnesses to interview and that some have canceled because they are still suffering from trauma stemming from the shooting.
"We cannot work harder on this case. But we don't want to create a facade for this community that it's going to be tried in January," said Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill. "There is still much work to be done."
But Scherer said it's vital to keep the case on track and would not change the January date.
"I think it's too early to continue that trial date when we have six months," the judge said.
His lawyers say Cruz will plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence, but prosecutors want the case to go to trial so a jury in Broward County can decide his fate.
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