FILE - In this April 5, 2019, file photo, Parkland school suspect Nikolas Cruz listens during a hearing at the Broward Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The public defenders representing Cruz have made an unexpected request to withdraw from the case, saying the man will soon receive nearly a half million dollars from his late mother's life insurance policy. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

Public defender asks to drop Florida school massacre suspect

April 24, 2019 - 7:55 pm

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The public defenders for the Parkland school massacre defendant unexpectedly asked to withdraw from the case Wednesday, saying the 20-year-old man will soon inherit nearly a half-million dollars and no longer qualify for free legal representation.

The Broward County Public Defender's Office filed the unexpected notice late Wednesday, saying Nikolas Cruz is set to receive more than $432,000 shortly from his late mother's life insurance policy. Under state law, the public defender can only represent defendants who cannot afford private attorneys.

Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder arising from the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The former Stoneman Douglas student faces a possible death sentence.

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein and his chief assistant, Gordon Weekes, said their office learned about the insurance policy this week. At a court hearing last year, their office had said the amount was likely to be about $30,000, too little to hire a private attorney.

"By statute, we can only represent the poor and indigent," Weekes told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. "We are asking to withdraw from the case because the defendant is no longer poor."

But Cruz may not get the money. It is likely that the victims' families who are suing Cruz will claim the money should go to them and judges will have to determine who ultimately receives it.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is presiding over the criminal case, has not set a hearing on the public defenders' withdrawal motion and she might require them to stay on until that is settled.

David Brill, an attorney representing the father of victim Meadow Pollack in a lawsuit against Cruz and others, said Wednesday that he is exploring his options. Other attorneys representing families and victims did not immediately respond to emails seeking their comments.

Weekes said that his office cannot help Cruz hire a private criminal defense attorney nor can it advise him what to do with the money. It is also unclear how Cruz would access the money from jail.

Cruz has said that he would prefer any money he received from his mother's estate or insurance go to the victims and their families. Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia in November 2017, three months before the shooting, leaving behind Cruz and his younger brother, Zachary. Their father died when they were young, not long after they were adopted.

The mother had a tumultuous relationship with her sons, calling police dozens of times over the years to say they had been verbally abusive or had damaged her property. Zachary and other family members have said Nikolas Cruz sometimes hit his mother and once threatened her with a gun, but she never reported that. She went with him to buy a gun shortly after he turned 18, but with a caveat.

A gun store employee told investigators after the shooting that he had received a call from Linda Cruz the day after the 2017 purchase. She asked him not to release the gun to him after the three-day waiting period if she wasn't there. When he pressed her on why, she hesitated and then said he was young and she wanted him to be safe.

Cruz's trial is scheduled to begin early next year. Finkelstein said it is too early to say whether this new development would delay the trial, "but it certainly won't speed it up." His office has estimated that more than a million documents have been generated in the case, which would have to be transferred to a new attorney.

Cruz has pleaded not guilty though Finkelstein has said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They declined comment Wednesday.

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This story has been corrected to show the year of shooting was 2018.

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