The right to counsel in criminal trials is one of the most fundamental principles we hold dear in our criminal justice system. It harkens back to our founding fathers and the fear of government intrusion into citizens’ lives. The right belongs to the best of us and the worst of us. It ensures that when the government tries to deprive someone of their fundamental right to liberty there are safeguards and protections in place. Yet a misconception regarding the right is that it applies to everyone. It does not. It applies to the indigent, the poor…those who could not afford legal counsel and need the government to step in and protect the individual. But what qualifies as indigent or poor sometime varies from courtroom to courtroom and jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Last week, this idea was tested with one of the worst of us, the Parkland shooter, Nicholas Cruz. Last week Public Defenders for Mr. Cruz discovered that he was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy in the amount of $864,927.17. This was in comparison to his net worth of $28,000.00 which he was at the time of the determination that he was indigent and in need of court appointed counsel1. Based on the change of circumstances, the judge is considering if Mr. Cruz should still be receiving public assistance.
Complicating the matter further is the amount of civil law suits currently pending against the shooter for wrongful death claims by the family members of his victims. Depending on the outcomes of these civil cases, the life insurance policy proceeds could be depleted and be unavailable for use in the criminal case. Of course, the opposite could hold true. If Mr. Cruz is allowed to tap into these funds for a private attorney, it could result in any civil award being simply a moral victory with no monies to collect on.
How the judge rules on this matter will be watched by legal scholars and court junkies for months to come. But one cannot help but ask if the facts behind this case in anyway is influencing the Public Defenders’ decision to withdraw at this point. The court had previously indicated a desire to try this case in January 2020. Should the Public Defender be able to withdraw that timeline will be in jeopardy. Equally interesting is the fact that the insurance policy was known at the time of the original appointment. The amount of funds was what was in doubt. With all this convoluting the simple question of whether Mr. Cruz is entitled to court appointed counsel, one cannot help and ask if this PD would be withdrawing for a minor offense instead one of the most horrific school shooting cases in US History.
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy