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Lawyers abruptly rest case in Parkland shooter trial's penalty phase

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Lawyers representing Nikolas Cruz, who killed more than a dozen people at his former high school in Parkland, Fla., four years ago, rested their case in the penalty phase of the trial Wednesday, surprising the judge. File Photo via Broward County Sheriff/UPI
Lawyers representing Nikolas Cruz, who killed more than a dozen people at his former high school in Parkland, Fla., four years ago, rested their case in the penalty phase of the trial Wednesday, surprising the judge. File Photo via Broward County Sheriff/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Lawyers representing Nikolas Cruz, who killed more than a dozen people at his former high school in Parkland, Fla., four years ago, rested their case in the penalty phase of the trial Wednesday, surprising the judge.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer was almost at a loss for words before lambasting Melisa McNeill, one of Cruz's team of public defenders.

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The defense team for Cruz, 23, had been expected to call dozens of more witnesses to testify, including the defendant's brother Zachary Cruz.

Instead, lawyers abruptly ended their defense after 11 days and over 20 witnesses.

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"I just want to say this is the most uncalled for, unprofessional way to try a case," Scherer said shortly after the courtroom opened Wednesday morning.

"You all knew about this, and even if you didn't make your decision until this morning, to have 22 people, plus all of this staff and every attorney, march into court and wait as if it's some kind of game."

Scherer, a 46-year-old former Broward County, Fla., prosecutor is overseeing her first death penalty case.

McNeill attempted to defend herself, noting that she has "been practicing in this county for 22 years" but the judge quickly cut her off.

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"I don't want to hear it," Scherer said.

"You've been insulting me the entire trial, blatantly. Taking your headphones off, arguing with me, storming out, coming late intentionally if you don't like my rulings. Quite frankly, this has been long overdue. So please be seated."

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Cruz's attorneys were attempting to persuade jurors in the sentencing trial that the shooter, who killed a number of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when he was 19, should be given life in prison instead of death row.

The final witness called by the defense during the penalty phase was a fetal alcohol researcher who testified that Cruz's birth mother drank heavily during her pregnancy.

During the trial prosecutors called him "cold, calculative, manipulative and deadly" in opening arguments, before detailing how Cruz fired 139 shots killing 14 students and three adults during his rampage.

A unanimous decision is needed in order to order the death penalty. Scherer still has the final say, even if jurors do return a death sentence recommendation.

Prosecutors will begin their arguments Sept. 27 and jurors are tentatively scheduled to begin their deliberation Oct. 10.

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