Head bowed, Florida shooting suspect returns to court for hearing

Nikolas Cruz, the former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who allegedly killed 17 people last Wednesday, attended a status hearing at a Fort Lauderdale court on Monday.
Nikolas Cruz appears in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US on Feb 19, 2018.
Nikolas Cruz appears in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US on Feb 19, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (REUTERS, AFP) – A former student accused of last week’s deadly shooting at a Florida high school returned to court for a hearing on Monday (Feb 19) in a case that has galvanised advocates of stricter gun control, including many of the rampage survivors.

Nikolas Cruz, his head bowed, hands shackled at his waist and wearing a red, jail-issued jumpsuit, showed no emotion during the procedural session in Fort Lauderdale.  

The hearing dealt with whether to unseal a defence motion related to access to their client, a minor point in what is certain to be a lengthy prosecution and trial. 

The hearing ended with Broward Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer ruling that a defence motion filed last week remain sealed from public view.

The content of the motion, sealed by another judge, was not described in the hearing. In a second hearing, Broward Circuit Court Judge Charles Greene ordered the release of parts of a mental health assessment of Cruz by the Florida Department of Children and Families in November 2016.

The report has already been leaked to South Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper.

Cruz, who did not attend the second hearing, is facing 17 counts of premeditated murder after the attack last Wednesday (Feb 14) at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Fort Lauderdale.  It is the deadliest shooting ever at a US high school.

The suspect, whose mother died in November, was investigated by authorities after videos surfaced on the social media platform Snapchat showing him cutting himself, the assessment by the Department of Children and Families said.

“Mr Cruz has fresh cuts on both his arms. Mr. Cruz stated he plans to go out and buy a gun. It is unknown what he is buying the gun for,” the released report said.

In a statement, department secretary Mike Carroll said the records showed Cruz was getting mental health services before, during and after the assessment.

Cruz was living with his mother and attending school when it concluded, he said.

Cruz was able to legally buy an AR-15 assault rifle despite numerous red flags that a succession of agencies, including the FBI failed to act upon.  

A profile has emerged of a deeply troubled young man who was expelled from the school last year for “disciplinary reasons.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has acknowledged it failed to act on a tip called in last month warning that Cruz possessed a gun and the desire to kill.

Greene agreed to the request by Cruz’s team of public defenders to release the assessment.

But he stopped short of allowing the release of details of Cruz’s mental health history and child abuse records.

The White House said on Monday that President Donald Trump supports efforts to improve federal background checks for gun purchases.

Trump angered some students by suggesting in a tweet on Saturday that the FBI had missed signs that the shooter was troubled because it was distracted by its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.

Cruz  was remanded in custody without bail at a hearing on Thursday (Feb 15), following his arrest on the day of the shootings.