By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Defense lawyers for the gunman who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 abruptly rested their case on Wednesday, taking prosecutors by surprise and drawing an angry rebuke from the trial judge.
A jury is deciding whether to recommend a death sentence for 23-year-old Nikolas Cruz, or a sentence of life in prison without parole, after he pleaded guilty last October to premeditated murder. It was one of the deadliest school shootings in history, killing 14 students and three staff members.
Cruz's lawyers had previously said they planned to call 80 witnesses but called fewer than half that many before announcing in court they were done with their case.
Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer admonished the defense for springing the decision without warning and wasting the court's time, calling it the "most uncalled-for, unprofessional way to try the case."
The jurors were not present during the announcement. Prosecutors said they were not prepared to start their rebuttal case because they had anticipated dozens of additional defense witnesses.
The trial will resume on Sept. 27, when prosecutors will begin their rebuttal, which they expect to last a week. Closing arguments are tentatively scheduled for the week of Oct. 10.
Cruz's lawyers have called witnesses to testify about Cruz's lifelong difficulties and mental health problems, including brain damage suffered from his mother's abuse of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy.
Prosecutors offered evidence showing Cruz carefully planned the attack in advance and parents of the victims gave emotional testimony about their loss.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Grant McCool)