Final jury selection begins in Florida school massacre trial
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – The final phase in the selection of 12 jurors who will decide whether Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz should receive the death sentence got underway Tuesday, the conclusion of a nearly three-month effort that began with 1,800 candidates.
The dozen jurors and eight alternates will be winnowed down from 53 candidates by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Each side can try to persuade Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that a particular candidate is biased. If she disagrees, each side also will have at least 10 peremptory challenges where they can eliminate candidates for any reason except race or gender.
The jury will decide whether Cruz, 23, receives the death sentence or life in prison without parole for the murders of 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Cruz pleaded guilty in October to those murders and 17 counts of attempted murder, so the jurors will only decide his punishment. They must be unanimous for Cruz to get the death penalty – if at least one votes for life, that will be Cruz’s sentence.
The final pool survived three rounds of questioning that began April 4. Jury selection had been expected to take about a month, but was beset by numerous delays because of sickness and other factors.
The panel will have a task never faced by a U.S. jury – no American mass shooter who killed at least 17 people has ever made it to trial. Nine others died during or immediately after their shooting attacks, killed either by police or themselves. The suspect in the 2019 slaying of 23 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.
In the first phase of jury selection, the prospective panelists were simply asked if their employment and life circumstances would allow them to serve the four months the trial is expected to last. About 80% were eliminated because their employers wouldn’t pay them, they are self-employed, or they had school obligations or vacations planned.
In the second phase, the 300 remaining panelists were asked their opinions on the death penalty and whether they could be fair to Cruz. Finally, about 85 were asked about their lives and work histories, whether they could stomach seeing gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos and even if they play violent video games and believe white people have advantages in society not available to racial minorities.
The selection process was upended several times. One day, the sheriff’s deputies who guard the courtroom thought some potential jurors were about to attack Cruz and pulled him to safety as they quickly removed the threatening panelists. On another day, Scherer had to dismiss a group of potential jurors because one wore a T-shirt referencing the shooting that supported the victims and survivors. Selection also was delayed for two weeks when lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill contracted COVID-19.
The jurors will be exposed to graphic evidence, including crime scene and autopsy photos and tour the three-story classroom building where Cruz methodically stalked the halls, shooting at anyone in front of him and into classrooms. It has not been cleaned since the shooting and remains bloodstained and bullet-pocked, with Valentine’s Day gifts strewn about.