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Defense asks for more delay in Parkland trial following Uvalde shooting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jury selection is moving slowly for a man who murdered 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. This is not a trial over guilt or innocence because Nikolas Cruz has already pleaded guilty. Instead, it is a death penalty trial for the killings back in 2018. Now the defense wants a further delay because of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In one motion, Nikolas Cruz's lawyers asked that his trial be put on hold temporarily because of the, quote, "wave of emotion" surrounding the shootings in Uvalde. Nineteen students and two teachers were killed in an attack that bears similarities to what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago. Cruz's lawyers say Uvalde already has, quote, "opened old wounds in Broward County." Because of that, they say they believe it's not possible for Cruz to get a fair trial now. The judge and prosecutors haven't responded yet to the defense motion. On Monday, six weeks after it got underway, jury selection in the Cruz trial hit another snag. Cruz's lead defense lawyer, Melissa McNeil, argued over the court's insistence that jury selection resume, even though another defense lawyer, a specialist in death penalty cases, was out sick and not able to attend. When the court insisted jury selection would resume nevertheless, McNeil responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELISSA MCNEIL: Judge, at this time, the defense would move to withdraw from the case of state of Florida vs. Nikolas Cruz.

ALLEN: Judge Elizabeth Scherer wouldn't let McNeil withdraw from the case. McNeil said moving forward without a death penalty specialist in court would deny her client a fair trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCNEIL: I'm not comfortable going forward without him, judge.

ELIZABETH SCHERER: Well, you're going to have to.

MCNEIL: And my client - furthermore, my client...

SCHERER: Your client has the right to have a competent lawyer. Your client does not have the right to have every lawyer - five - there's nothing - there's no case law that says four or five lawyers have to be present at all times.

ALLEN: McNeil then asked Judge Scherer to remove herself from the case, saying she's biased against Cruz. The judge refused. It's the latest turmoil in the sentencing trial that has been plagued by a series of miscues and delays that have now left it uncertain when a jury may be seated and decide whether the gunman gets death or life in prison.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.