Nikolas Cruz, the confessed Parkland school shooter, and his brother Zachary Cruz may be worth as much as $1 million, possibly rendering him ineligible for a public defender, whose legal fees are paid for by taxpayers.
Cruz committed one of the worst mass shootings in Florida when he returned to his old high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, on February 14, 2018 and shot and killed 17 students and teachers and wounded an additional 17 people.
According to a report by CNN, attorney Howard Finkelstein, Cruz’s court-appointed public defender, shared the information about Cruz’s finances in a court hearing earlier today to determine if he is eligible for taxpayer-funded legal counsel. Finkelstein requested that the court wait to make a final determination regarding his client’s assets until the probate estate of Cruz’s mother, who died last November, could be resolved.
Finkelstein told the court that Cruz has one or two annuities, but they have not determined how much or how frequently the annuities pay. They were able to verify one deposit last year of more than $3,333. If that was an annual payment, that would not have much financial impact, but if it is a monthly deposit, then Finkelstein believed the Cruz brothers could have as much as $1 million in the bank, and his client would be able to pay for his own legal defense.
Among the matters to be settled by the probate court include determining what assets exist and how to divide them among the brothers. Cruz had previously told the family with whom he was living at the time of the shooting that he expected to inherit $800,000 from his parents, the majority of which he would not be able to access until he turned 22. Cruz is currently 19 years old.
Additional assets held by Cruz include a bank account with $353, about $2,200 in Microsoft stock and the dividend payments therefrom, a life insurance check for $25,000, and his prison commissary account containing $669.
The amount of legal expenses needed will vary widely depending on how the criminal case proceeds. Cruz is currently being held without bail in a Broward County jail and faces 17 counts of premeditated murder in the first degree and 17 counts of attempted murder in the first degree.
Prosecutors have officially filed a notice of intent to pursue the death penalty, citing Cruz’s actions as “knowingly creat[ing] a great risk of death for many persons,” being “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel,” and that the homicides were “committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification.”
Cruz’s defense team is not contesting that he was the shooter, but are seeking to avoid the death penalty, stating a willingness to plead guilty in exchange for 34 consecutive life sentences — one for each person who was killed or injured during the shooting.
So far, the prosecution is rejecting this offer. “The state of Florida is not allowing Mr. Cruz to choose his own punishment,” said Assistant State Attorney Shari Tate in court earlier.
When Cruz was asked to enter a plea at a hearing last month, his defense counsel informed the court that he was “standing mute” to the charges and declining to enter a plea, so the judge entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.
Obviously, if the case is able to be resolved quickly with a plea deal, that will substantially limit the attorneys’ fees. If the case proceeds to trial, a death penalty case will likely take several years and be a very expensive endeavor, involving expert witnesses.
The next step is an upcoming court date on April 27, and Judge Elizabeth Scherer said she would rule on Cruz’s financial worth before then. Even if he is ruled to be indigent, if he does later come into money, from his late mother’s estate or other sources, the government has the ability to pursue those funds at a later date for reimbursement for the public defenders’ work.
One additional complication is that Cruz is facing lawsuits from the victims’ families, that, if successful, would be likely to take the majority, if not all, of his remaining assets. Finkelstein told CNN that he prefers any assets that Cruz may have to go to the victims’ families: “It’s best that they receive it rather than an attorney.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.
[Cross-posted at The Capitolist.]