FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Police in Florida say they will investigate a lawmaker’s allegation that a transgender student may have sexually assaulted a female student in a middle school bathroom over the summer — a rumored attack that school district officials say never occurred and that investigators say they received no reports about.
After reading Republican State Rep. Randy Fine’s social media posts about the alleged assault on Thursday, police in the eastern coast city of Melbourne, just south of Cape Canaveral, assigned two detectives to investigate the allegations, though they said they had received no previous word of an attack.
Fine told The Associated Press on Friday that some parents approached him, saying a teacher at the school told them about the incident but that the teacher was “afraid to go public because of fear of retaliation by the school district.”
Brevard Public Schools spokesperson Russell Bruhn disputed Fine’s allegations. “There was no attack. No victim, no witness, no parents coming forward, nothing,” he told the AP. “Rep. Fine owes our staff at Johnson Middle School an apology for making this baseless allegation.”
Fine, a Republican lawmaker known for fiery floor speeches marked by indignation, drew a national spotlight earlier this year when he sponsored a bill to dissolve the private government Walt Disney World controls on its property in Florida as punishment for the company’s opposition to a new law barring gender identity instruction in early grades that critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”
The reports began circulating on Wednesday, and Florida Today reported Thursday that Fine had sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz seeking an investigation into reports that a transgender student — granted access to the girl’s bathroom through the district’s open bathrooms policy — had assaulted a female student over the summer.
Melbourne police spokesperson Shaun Hill said the department received no reports of a sexual assault at the school over the summer. But he said Friday that the department, after seeing Fine’s social media posts, contacted him to ask for more information about the alleged incident, and assigned two detectives to the case. Hill said the investigation has just started and there is no further information available.
“I would assume that Rep. Fine would be eager to talk to the police himself and will also be eager to provide police with access to the concerned parents who have gone to him with this false information,” said Bruhn, the school district spokesperson.
In the letter to the education commissioner, Fine said parents have been “stonewalled” in their inquiries to the school district, including requests for public records.
Students attending summer school at Johnson were escorted to restrooms by adults during summer school because of ongoing construction, Bruhn told Florida Today, which first reported the story. He said students from other district schools were also attending classes there and were unfamiliar with the campus layout.
Lawyer’s Group Text Causes 2nd Florida Murder Case Mistrial
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A prosecutor in a murder case complained about a judge’s ruling in a group text message that included the judge, resulting in a second mistrial for a man charged with killing his girlfriend’s young son. Now the defense wants the case dismissed altogether.
Broward County Judge Peter Holden refused to allow a 911 call as evidence against Corey Gorden, who is accused of killing the 3-year-old in 2015 and returning him in his car seat to his mother as if nothing had happened.
Assistant State Attorney Katya Palmiotto then sent a text complaining about the ruling to a group of current and former homicide prosecutors, the South Florida SunSentinel reported.
“Holden just sustained their objection and wouldn’t let us put the 911 call in as hearsay,” she wrote.
As a former homicide prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 2018, the judge remained in the group chat. And lawyers are prohibited in criminal cases from talking with the judge if the defendant’s lawyers are not present.
Defense lawyer Michael Gottlieb filed for mistrial on Wednesday, saying in a summary that the 15-year veteran prosecutor had been overheard saying she messed up “real bad.”
“The judge was visibly upset and appeared angry,” Gottlieb wrote.
Holden grilled the prosecutor about the text message before declaring a mistrial.
In May, another judge declared a mistrial when prosecutors asked a witness about Gorden’s refusal to give a statement. Criminal trial jurors are not permitted to consider the defendants silence as proof of guilt.
Holden has not set a hearing on Gottlieb’s motion to dismiss the case.
School shooter’s brain exams to be subject of court hearing
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A defense mental health expert in the penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz can pinpoint when he realized the 23-year-old mass murderer still has “irrational thoughts” — the two were making small talk when Cruz began describing plans for an eventual life outside prison.
Wesley Center, a Texas counselor, said that happened last year at the Broward County jail as he fitted Cruz’s scalp with probes for a scan to map his brain. The defense at hearings this week will try to convince Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that Center and other experts should be allowed to testify at Cruz’s ongoing trial about what their tests showed, something the prosecution wants barred.
“He had some sort of epiphany while he was in (jail) that would focus his thoughts on being able to help people,” transcripts show Center told prosecutors during a pretrial interview this year. “His life’s purpose was to be helping others.”
Cruz, of course, will never be free. Since his arrest about an hour after he murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, there has never been any doubt his remaining years would be behind bars, sentenced to death or life without parole. Surveillance video shows him mowing down his victims with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and he confessed, eventually pleading guilty in October.
Prosecutors made their argument for death to the seven-man, five-woman jury and 10 alternates over three weeks, resting their case Aug. 4 after the panel toured the still-bloodstained, bullet-pocked classroom building where the massacre happened.
The jurors also watched graphic surveillance videos; saw gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos; received emotional testimony from teachers and students who witnessed others die; and heard from tearful and angry parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and how their loved one’s death impacted their lives. They watched video of the former Stoneman Douglas student calmly ordering an Icee minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a jail guard.
Soon, it will be Cruz’s attorneys arguing why he should be spared, hoping to convince at least one juror their mitigating factors outweigh the prosecution’s aggravating circumstances — a death sentence must be unanimous.
But first, the trial took last week off to accommodate some jurors’ requests to deal with personal matters. The jury will also be absent this week as the sides argue before Scherer, who will decide whether brain scans, tests and other evidence the defense wants to present starting Aug. 22 is scientifically valid or junk, as the prosecution contends.
Center’s test and its findings will be subject to contentious debate. Called a “quantitative electroencephalogram” or “qEEG,” its backers say it provides useful support to such diagnoses as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz’s attorneys contend created his lifelong mental and emotional problems.
EEGs have been common in medicine for a century, measuring brainwaves to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain ailments. But the qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes a step farther — a patient’s EEG results are compared to a database of brainwaves taken from normal or “neurotypical” people. While qEEG findings cannot be used to make a diagnosis, they can support findings based on the patient’s history, examination, behavior and other tests, supporters contend.
A “qEEG can confirm what you already know, but you can’t create new knowledge,” Center told prosecutors in his interview.
Dr. Charles Epstein, an Emory University neurology professor, reviewed Center’s findings for the prosecution. In a written statement to Scherer, he said EEGs using only external scalp probes like the one given Cruz are imprecise, making Center’s qEEG results worthless.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” he wrote.
Florida judges have given mixed rulings about allowing qEEGs since 2010, when the test helped a Miami-area man escape a death sentence for fatally stabbing his wife and severely wounding her mentally disabled 11-year-old daughter. Some judges have since allowed their admission, while others barred them. Scherer, who is overseeing her first death penalty trial, has never had a case where the defense tried to present a qEEG report.
Even if Scherer bars the test, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team still have evidence that Cruz’s brain likely suffered damage in the womb, including statements by his late birth mother that she abused alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy.
They also have reports giving circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz got kicked out of preschool for hurting other children. During his years in public school, he spent significant time at a center for students with emotional issues. He also received years of mental health treatment.
Then there are his life circumstances. Cruz’s adoptive father died in front of him when he was 5; he was bullied by his younger brother and his brother’s friends; he was allegedly abused sexually by a “trusted peer;” he cut himself and abused animals; and his adoptive mother died less than four months before the shooting.
His youth will also be an issue — he was 19 when the shooting happened.
Attorneys not involved in the case say if Scherer wants to avoid having a possible death sentence overturned on appeal, she should give the defense wide latitude on what it presents so jurors can fully assess his life and mental health.
“If it’s a close call, I think she is going to bend to the defense — and the prosecution is not going to be happy,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor.
Florida Planned Parenthood PAC announces Senate and House candidate endorsements
WEST PALM BEACH – The Florida Planned Parenthood PAC today announced its latest slate of legislative and local endorsements ahead of Florida’s critically important 2022 midterm election. The endorsements come following passage earlier this year of Florida’s most restrictive anti-abortion law in history – a 15-week abortion ban without exceptions for victims of rape, incest, or human trafficking. Moreover, the landmark Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the United States Supreme Court, taking away our federal constitutional right to abortion and sowing chaos and confusion in Florida and across the country.
Each endorsed candidate has returned a questionnaire reaffirming their commitment to reproductive freedom, and their opposition to any policies that limit access to abortion or reproductive health care. In addition, each candidate endorsed by the PAC already has a proven track record of voting for abortion rights and/or their general election opponent has a clear history of voting against reproductive health.
“Every one of these endorsed candidates exemplifies our firm commitment to ensuring Floridians can access the full range of reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion,” said Laura Goodhue, Director of the Florida Planned Parenthood PAC. “The fall of Roe is an urgent reminder that, in order to stop the assault on the fundamental freedom to control our own bodies, Floridians must make their voices heard at the ballot box this fall.”
The newest slate of endorsements targets elections that will be critical to securing additional pro-reproductive health members in the Florida Legislature. With reproductive health under attack at all levels of government, the PAC is also announcing endorsements in two local races. The full list of candidates endorsed by the Florida Planned Parenthood PAC can be found here. Additional endorsements will be announced in the future.
“Anti-abortion politicians continue plotting how to take away our rights and control of our bodies, with the ultimate goal of making abortion completely inaccessible in Florida and across the country,” said Goodhue. “Our PAC will work tirelessly to activate concerned citizens and send these reproductive health care champions to Tallahassee and stop the continued assault on our most basic rights and freedoms.”
Abortion bans disproportionately harm Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other people of color because of this country’s legacy of racism and discrimination. Additionally, folks with lower incomes already face barriers to accessing reproductive health care, and those challenges will heighten as abortion becomes more restricted across the country. Abortion providers in Florida are already working overtime to accommodate patients seeking care from nearby states that have even more restrictive abortion bans than Florida.
Polling consistently shows Floridians support abortion rights. A poll conducted by the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab after Florida’s abortion ban passed showed that 60-percent of registered voters in Florida oppose the ban. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to undo Roe v. Wade, a CBS/YouGov poll found that 59% oppose the ruling, including 67% of women. 64% said they prefer abortion be legal in all or most cases in their home state.
“Every poll released since the court’s decision has shown that the majority of Americans oppose rolling back their rights,” continued Goodhue. “The polling also tells us supporters of abortion rights are highly motivated to support political leaders who will fight to protect abortion access, and our PAC has a robust campaign to help ensure their election.”