FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It’s Day 4, Week 2 of a long road ahead in finding a 12-member death-qualified jury in the penalty phase of confessed Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s capital case.
In one of his five court-issued shirts, an attentive Cruz reviewed a prospective jury seating chart as he listened to the proceedings.
Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer once again told potential jurors Monday that this phase of jury selection is focused on hardships some of them might have with their schedules that would prevent them from serving on the jury as the trial is supposed to take several months.
For some, however, being in the courtroom with the man who has already pleaded guilty of murdering 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February of 2018, it was an emotional hardship.
One woman became tearful Monday. When Scherer asked her if everything was OK, the woman told the judge that her 15-year-old son was a victim of gun violence.
The judge then had a bailiff escort the woman from the courtroom.
One after one, teary eye potential jurors began to leave the courtroom, then a few others trickle out, upwards of 8.
“The ladies and gentlemen that have been taken out so far are people that are just so upset that they can’t sit here without getting emotional and we don’t want to cause trauma for anyone. If you absolutely cannot sit here without breaking down or getting emotional you can raise your hand,” Scherer said.
However, she did tell potential jurors that it was not the time to let the court know that a potential juror would “know too much about the case or that type of thing. As long as you can sit here and listen to what I have to say which is pretty much I am just going to ask people about their schedules,” she said.
But the remaining people on the panel of 60 were dismissed a short time later. This is the first time an entire panel has been dismissed during jury selection for this case.
“In the end, what is going to be important is how many people are going to be able to set aside whatever preconceived notions they have, both about the case and about the death penalty,” said legal analyst and former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein.
“One of the difficulties that is being faced here by both the prosecution and the defense, and the judge, is getting a large enough pool from which to pick 12 jurors, plus potentially eight alternates in order to even get to the testimony in the penalty phase,” he added.
Scherer told potential jurors during the first three days of week one of the jury pre-selection process that she expects trial testimony to begin on May 31 and to run through the end of September.
Monday: Day 4 of process to find a 12-member death-qualified jury: “In the end, what is going to be important, is how many people are going to be able to set aside whatever preconceived notions they have both about the case and about the death penalty." -@DavidSWeinstein pic.twitter.com/MF3BRjNl1q— Christina Boomer Vazquez, M.S. (@CBoomerVazquez) April 10, 2022
The judge indicated the court would be seeking six to eight alternates.
“There will be extensive jury questioning about the prospective jurors about their views on the death penalty – are any of them adamantly opposed, could they, if they believe that the evidence presented at trial and at the penalty phase merits that – could they return, potentially, a death sentence,” NSU law professor Mark Dobson said. “It would be one of the most difficult things a human being could ever be asked to decide in their life. Any juror who does this serves deserves the thanks of everybody.”
Those who make it past this round will return to face questions from the state and defense about the death penalty, about if they believe they can listen to the evidence and follow the law by being fair and impartial when deciding whether to recommend life or death.
In October of last year, Cruz pleaded guilty to shooting and killing 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School staff members and students on Valentine’s Day in 2018, setting up the penalty phase of the trial.
He also entered guilty pleas to injuring another 17 people.
Those could be used by the state as aggravating factors for the jury to consider in this death penalty case.
The 12 jurors would need to be unanimous in recommending a death sentence.
The defense is expected to present evidence of mitigating circumstances they want jurors to consider when deciding to make a recommendation of life in prison without parole or death, to include witness testimony and evidence related to his background, childhood and history of behavioral issues.