Parkland school shooter’s penalty phase to last up to 6 months; judge to decide if jurors visit crime scene

Defense on crime scene tour: Jurors ‘don’t need to see all of the horrible things’

Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer will have to decide if jurors in Nikolas Cruz’s penalty phase trial — which will take up to six months — will tour the crime scene area at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A Broward County judge will have to decide if jurors in Nikolas Cruz’s penalty phase trial — which could take up to six months — will tour the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s former Building 12 in Parkland.

During a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday, Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer the penalty phase could run through early September. Scherer said this could complicate jury selection.

“They can tell you what that extreme inconvenience is, a lot of people say, ‘Well, I have a vacation.’ OK, well when is it? ‘You know, I am going to, my child is graduating in June.’ OK, that is not a problem. We can give you Friday to Monday, we can work around that,” Marcus said. “A lot of it you can work around.”

Cruz now 23, was 19 years old when he confessed to returning to his former school with an AR-15 to shoot 34 people, 17 died and 17 were injured, on Feb. 14, 2018. In October, he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.

Jury selection, a search for 12 jurors and 6-8 alternates, is set to begin on Monday. The jury will have to decide if Cruz will face life in prison or the death penalty. Assistant State Attorney Michael Satz and Public Defender Melisa McNeill agreed Scherer needs to dictate whether or not the length of the process constitutes an “undue hardship.”

“We have to not allow them to dictate whether or not it constitutes a hardship. I don’t think our focus should be on how quickly this gets done, but that we get it done right,” McNeill said.

The prosecution and the defense didn’t agree on whether or not jurors should tour the crime scene. The defense argued the tour could be traumatic and highly prejudicial, so a produced video with clean halls and classrooms should suffice.

“If the purpose of bringing the jury to the crime scene is so they can understand the area that Mr. Cruz walked, the path that he took, that can be done with a sanitized crime scene ... they don’t need to see all of the other traumatizing, horrible things that will be admitted in through photographs throughout the proceeding,” McNeill said adding jurors “don’t need to see all of the horrible things.”

Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann said it’s absolutely necessary for the jurors to visit the three-story building since the digital assets can’t capture the scale and will not aid in their understanding of the “heinous, atrocious and cruel” crime.

“This is going to help the jury, assist the jury, in analyzing and understanding the aggravating factor of cold, calculated, pre-meditated aggravation of first-degree murder,” McCann said adding, “He started shooting at 2:22 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. The fact that they want to sanitize the classroom of blood, fluid, Valentine’s memorabilia, anything — as I understand it, he doesn’t want to come to grips with what he has done.”

Scherer’s ruling on the jury’s building tour is pending. The next court hearing is on Friday.

WATCH: Part 1 of hearing:

WATCH: Part 2 of hearing:

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About the Authors:

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."

Amanda Batchelor is the Digital Executive Producer for Local10.com.