Parkland killer defense seeks alternating juror questioning in penalty trial

Phase to decide if Nikolas Cruz gets death penalty expected to begin early in 2022

Prosecutors countered that the defense is asking the court to “toss aside long-standing tradition” which allows the state to go first in potential juror questioning.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As the Parkland school shooter case nears the start of its penalty phase, details about jury selection were discussed in a pretrial hearing Wednesday.

The defense for Nikolas Cruz asked Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer if they can take turns with the prosecution when asking potential jurors about their views on the death penalty. They argue that the alternating questioning would be “the more fair method.”

Prosecutors countered that the defense is asking the court to “toss aside long-standing tradition” which allows the state to go first, similar to how the state goes first during opening statements and closing arguments. They also said switching back and forth could be confusing.

“Keep it the way it has always been,” Assistant State Attorney Steven Klinger said. “That’s the way it has been, that’s the way we have done it for years. I don’t see any reason to upend the apple cart, especially given the number of jurors that we are anticipating going through.”

Public Defender Tamara Curtis countered: “Their argument has been this is the way we have always done it. There is no basis in law or rule for the state to go first 100% of the time. The fact that the state presents opening statements has no bearing. If there is no advantage [to going first] then it shouldn’t matter if defense goes first half of the time.”

The judge said she planned to defer her ruling until trial.

In October, Cruz pleaded guilty to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018. The penalty trial, set to begin early in 2022, will decide if he gets the death penalty or life in prison.

Also Wednesday, the defense asked for a pretrial hearing to see the pictures and videos prosecutors plan to show to jurors. They say some of the photographs or videos may have no relevance or could be “highly prejudicial and inflammatory, outweighing any probative value.”

[ALSO SEE: Victim impact statements take center stage in Parkland pretrial hearing]

The state countered in its written response that “the gold standard of admitting evidence is relevancy” and that “gruesome photographs are not automatically prejudicial or irrelevant,” adding it would be hard at this time to determine what evidence could be relevant, “especially since the state has yet to receive evidence from the defense, including, but not limited to, the data and reports from their experts.”

Both sides did conceptually agree to the idea of the court establishing a procedure to streamline anticipated arguments about the admissibility of certain pictures and videos.

“Sounds like you are both on the same page and I think that is a great idea,” Scherer said.

The next status hearing on penalty phase-related pretrial motions is scheduled for Monday.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."