Jury selection is about to begin for Parkland school shooter Cruz

More than four years after shooting 17 people dead at a Parkland high school, Nikolas Cruz must finally face trial in a Broward County courtroom.

On Monday, barring an unexpected delay, prosecutors and defense attorneys will begin the process of selecting 12 jurors to decide a remaining question about the confessed and convicted mass murderer. Should he live or die?

Under Florida law, the decision to execute Cruz must be unanimous. Finding a dozen people to do it – plus alternates – should take weeks.

Given the immense publicity, the brutal details of the murders of innocent school children and the difficult prospect of potentially sentencing someone to death, legal experts say finding volunteer jurors who say they can also be impartial will be a challenge.

“It will be a long and arduous process. It will be difficult to find jurors without notice,” said retired senior Miami-Dade prosecutor Gail Levine, who is not involved in the case. “Remember, it’s normal to know about the case. But a juror cannot sit if they have already formed an opinion on sentencing before the case is presented.

Jury selection is expected to last through the month of April. Once a jury is seated, the trial could last between four and six months, lawyers told the court this week, further complicating the selection process.

“We all recognize that this is going to be an inconvenience to whoever sits on this case. Our goal should not focus on how fast we do it, but on us doing it right,” Broward assistant public defender Melisa McNeill told the judge on Wednesday.

The jury will not decide Cruz’s guilt. In November, Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, paving the way for what’s known as the “sentence phase,” or a trial just to decide whether Cruz sentenced to life in prison, or will be executed.

The trial will nevertheless be long – prosecutors still have to present dozens of witnesses and introduce hundreds of pieces of evidence to show that, among other reasons, Cruz acted in such a cruel and calculated way that he deserves to be put to death.

“There were 17 people killed. And so there is, in essence, a story about the deaths of 17 different people,” Broward District Attorney Jeffrey Marcus said in court Wednesday.

As for Cruz’s defense, jurors will be asked to consider “mitigating” factors, such as his tumultuous family life, a long history of mental health issues, brain damage from drug use and alcohol from his mother, and claims that he was bullied and sexually abused by a “trusted peer”.

The defense will present a battery of experts and may also use controversial “brain mapping” technology to show that Cruz’s brain is abnormal.

An unprecedented trial

The trial will be like no other ever held in Broward County.

The proceedings will be broadcast live online, Court TV, from a cavernous courtroom in the new wing of the Broward Justice Centre. Members of 25 news agencies have been accredited to cover the trial in person. Sheriff’s deputies will provide enhanced security inside and outside the building.

Relatives of the dead, still dealing with the senseless killings, will watch in court and online.

After postponing the annual beach cleanup in honor of his daughter Gina Rose Montalto, Tony Montalto and his son Anthony Montalto III, right, are pictured with luminaries to raise awareness and make charitable donations to the foundation that carries the daughter’s name on Sunday, February 13. , 2022. Carl Just [email protected]

The testimony will be heartbreaking, detailing the morning of February 18, 2018, when Cruz took an Uber ride to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, his former school, and methodically stalked the halls, shooting people dead with an AR assault rifle. -15. .

The trial could even feature the rare visit to the jury site — prosecutors say it’s important to show jurors inside the freshman building, which has been locked up and sealed since the massacre.

“There is not a single video, photograph, poster, film, anything, that captures what the … building is,” prosecutor Carolyn McCann told the judge. “The jury must know the steps, the distance, the perspective, the visual acuity that the defendant must have had.”

Defense lawyers say the visit to the scene – still stained with blood, marred by bullet holes – will only serve to “inflame” the emotions of the jury. Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is still weighing the decision.

But before witnesses are sworn in to tell their stories, lawyers must choose a qualified jury to sit in a death penalty case – a difficult task, even in a less high-profile capital case.

Previous try an indicator?

If Cruz’s previous trial is any indication, it’s going to be a slow ride.

Last October, Cruz began his trial for attacking a prison guard nine months after the Parkland Massacre. During jury selection, many potential jurors, including teachers or Parkland residents, were fired after saying they could not judge Cruz fairly.

On the first day, two women burst into tears just by seeing Cruz. Eventually, Cruz pleaded guilty to assault and battery before the start of testimony.

The “visceral emotional response” of would-be jurors to the case is to be expected, given Parkland’s place in the country’s long and horrific history of mass school shootings across the country, said Craig Trocino, a law professor at the University of Miami, who is the school’s Director of Innocence. Clinical.

“There’s a lot of emotion in all of this, from the incredible advocacy that some of the surviving students have engaged in over the years, to the other side – which is dark and ugly,” Trocino said. “That is why, in this case, all of Cruz’s constitutional guarantees must be scrupulously respected.”

Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks to prosecutors during a hearing on the status of Parkland School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel. .. SOUTH FLORIDA OUT; NO MAGS; NO SALE; NO INTERNET; NO TV… Amy Beth Bennett Sentinel of the sun

Over the weeks, Judge Scherer and attorneys have been able to interview thousands of prospective jurors, first weeding out those who cannot serve due to scheduling and other difficulties. Next, they’ll be asked about how they consumed the publicity surrounding the massacre — and how that shaped their ability to uphold the law and serve impartially.

“In Broward, unless we’re at nuclear war with Russia, this will be front page news every day, all day,” said Abe Laeser, a retired Miami-Dade prosecutor. “That’s one of the reasons it’s going to be so hard.”

Despite the rise of digital and social media, it is rare for courts to move a lawsuit due to pervasive advertising.

In 2008, a Miami-Dade judge ordered the trial of Southwood Middle killer Michael Hernandez transferred to Orlando after lawyers discovered that a large number of potential jurors had already formed opinions about the murder. infamous of a teenager. Hernandez was convicted in Orlando and sentenced to life in prison.

But attorneys in many high-profile murder cases in Florida have successfully chosen juries.

Among the defendants who had trials in their home jurisdictions: George Zimmerman, who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, Casey Anthony, who was charged with the murder of his daughter, and Eric Rivera, the teenager who shot and killed NFL star Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman and Anthony won their lawsuits.

So far, attorneys in the Cruz case have not suggested a change of venue.

And just as difficult, attorneys will have to probe prospective jurors’ opinions on the death penalty and whether they might consider imposing the ultimate sentence on Cruz.

“Anyone who walks in and says, ‘I don’t know what I think about the death penalty,’ is about to be excused,” Laeser said. “Unfortunately for the defense, you’re going to end up with a lot of people whose hereditary belief is, ‘Why not trade a life for the 17 he took.

Must be a unanimous decision on death

The Cruz case will be the most watched capital case since Florida, forced by US Supreme Court rulings in 2017, required jurors to be unanimous when deciding whether to send someone to the death row. For decades before, Florida juries only needed a majority vote to recommend the death penalty, with the judge imposing the actual sentence.

Now, Cruz’s defense team can hope to get at least life detention — a deadlocked jury, under Florida law, automatically carries a life sentence.

The Broward Public Defender’s Office has long offered to allow Cruz to be sentenced to life in prison, in exchange for a waiver of the death penalty. Broward prosecutors, faced with some families of victims who want to see Cruz die at the hands of the state, declined.

“This case will really decide if the death penalty is an option in Florida,” said Levine, the former Miami-Dade prosecutor. “Remember, it’s a juror’s veto. People will say if Cruz doesn’t understand, who should? I think the penalty is on trial here.

David Ovalle covers crime and the courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sportscaster.

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