FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Jury selection began Tuesday after Nikolas Cruz’s battery trial was briefly delayed.
Before the first prospective juror entered the courtroom for the trial related to an attack on a Broward Sheriff’s Office jail guard in November 2018, nine months after the Parkland school shooting, Cruz’s upcoming death penalty trial related to that mass shooting loomed large.
Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer clarified what questions jurors will and will not be asked about the Parkland shooting.
“I am not asking about death penalty or the number of people who were killed,” she said. “Even though this is not the Parkland shooting, it is important to gauge your knowledge of the Parkland shooting case.”
Scherer’s comments from the bench illustrated the anticipated difficulty of finding a fair and impartial six-member jury for this trial given Cruz’s notoriety as a confessed school shooter.
“We request that jurors not wear masks so they can see their reaction,” defense attorney Gabe Ermine said.
The judge, however, said that would violate COVID-case mitigation protocols.
“I cannot ask them to sit three-feet apart and not wear masks,” she said.
Ermine reiterated Cruz’s willingness to plead guilty to 17 counts of murder in the Parkland case in exchange for a life sentence.
Prosecutors had already rejected that offer, saying the state is seeking a death sentence.
“We are not here for that case,” Scherer said. “Please don’t waste my time.”
Cruz was attentive when jury selection began, taking notes and appearing to listen closely.
As the judge began polling prospective jurors about the Parkland shooting to mitigate against the strong feelings on that case possibly bleeding to this one, the responses from several prospective jurors illustrated why there is such a large jury pool.
“I am a teacher and it is very difficult in the classroom,” said one prospective juror.
“Do you think it would be hard to find him innocent?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” the prospective juror responded.
“One of my church members was killed in the Parkland shooting,” another juror told the judge.
“Okay ma’am, you will be excused,” the judge said.
Cruz is charged with four criminal counts stemming from the attack on the jail guard, which was captured on surveillance video.
Authorities said Cruz punched Sgt. Ray Beltran, wrestling him to the ground and taking his stun gun.
Nearly 70 of the 192 potential jurors the court heard from Tuesday were asked to return for final jury selection, scheduled for Oct. 18.
Between now and then, the judge told them they are banned from posting on social media or talking to their friends and family about the case. That order lifts if they are excused on the 18th, she said.
The total jury pool is more than 500.
Jury selection resumes Wednesday. Former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein said, “Another 70 tomorrow, and they should have enough to pick from on the 18th.”
The judge said it may be possible for them to provide clear masks to jurors so their full faces can be seen.
Trial testimony is scheduled to begin October 19th.