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Parkland school shooter cannot be called ‘animal’ at trial, judge rules

Parkland, Florida, school shooting defendant Nikolas Cruz is surrounded by his defense attorneys -- Melisa McNeill, left, Diane Cuddihy and Gabe Ermine, right, -- after entering the courtroom Jan. 22, 2020, for a hearing at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

(CNN) — Prosecutors and witnesses in the future trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz will not be allowed to use derogatory words to refer to the defendant, according to a ruling by a Florida judge.

It would not be feasible, Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said, to create “an exhaustive list of words,” that should not be used to describe Cruz, who faces 34 counts of premeditated and attempted murder for the February 2018 shooting at a South Florida high school that left 17 people dead. But the use of terms like “animal” or “that thing” would not be permitted during the trial, Scherer said.

However, Scherer’s ruling, issued Friday, said the defense had also asked some words not be used — like “school shooter,” “murderer” or “killer” — were not derogatory, but “normal words or terms that may be used to describe particular facts.”

That thinking also applies to words that reference the shooting itself, Scherer said, like “massacre,” which describes a “particular circumstance” and is not, “in and of itself,” a derogatory word.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Cruz, who previously confessed to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that spawned a massive national protest movement against gun violence in American schools. He has pleaded not guilty, but his attorneys previously said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of parole. A date for the trial has not been set.

The ruling comes after attorneys for Cruz on Wednesday argued in support of two motions to keep state prosecutors and witnesses from referring to Cruz or the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in an “inflammatory manner.”

In a virtual hearing, which Cruz attended via video call, Assistant Public Defender Melissa McNeill asked that Cruz be referred to by only his name or “the defendant,” and that the shooting be referred to only as “the incident, the mass shooting or the tragedy.”

It would be “improper to refer to the accused in derogatory terms,” McNeill argued, and it was not necessary because “the evidence speaks for itself.” Calling Cruz anything other than his name would be “an attack on his character and is unnecessary,” McNeill said.

In response, Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone said there was no law to prevent the state from referring to a defendant as a murderer in a murder trial.

“That’s not a derogatory word, that’s not an inflammatory word, that’s not commenting on his character, it’s not even name-calling,” Chiappone said. “It’s what he’s charged with.”

Scherer wrote in her ruling that the court trusted “that no party wishes to invited error into the proceedings, and that the attorneys will act professionally at trial, as is their duty.” Similarly, witnesses will be expected to act appropriately and exhibit “proper courtroom decorum,” Scherer wrote.

“Defendant shall be tried on the evidence and what the attorneys say is not evidence. A trial is not the time for the attorneys to editorialize or give their opinions of a defendant,” Scherer wrote. “The trial attorneys shall present the evidence, and the jury shall make their determinations based on the evidence presented.”

However, if needed, attorneys will be able to object during the trial, and Scherer will address those objections in court, she wrote.

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