Nikolas Cruz in court: Day 6 of jury selection tugs ‘at the heartstrings’

Jury selection to continue later this month

As two women couldn’t contain their tears in the courtroom as they waited near the relatives of the Parkland school shooter’s victims, another walked out sniffling as if overcome with emotion.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As two potential jurors wiped away their tears in the courtroom in Fort Lauderdale, there was a chain reaction Wednesday morning. Suddenly, another potential juror walked out of the courtroom sniffling.

Grieving families and the community have been waiting for justice in the Parkland school shooting for more than four years. The search for the jurors who will decide if Nikolas Cruz should be executed has proven challenging.

“There are just too many factors that tug at the heartstrings both ways,” said David Bogenschutz, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney who has been following the case closely.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is presiding over Cruz’s capital trial. He was 19 when he walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School armed with an AR-15. He shot 34 people on Feb. 14, 2018 — 17 died and 17 were injured.

After Cruz, now 23, pled guilty in October, Scherer moved ahead with the penalty phase. Jury selection began last week with a pool of about 1,500 potential jurors. During the first phase, the court has to screen them for legitimate hardships.

“I work for the Broward Sheriff’s Office and live with two other BSOs,” a potential juror said on Wednesday afternoon.

Scherer chose not to dismiss her because there wasn’t a financial or scheduling hardship since BSO will pay for the time served. Attorney David Weinstein, who is following the case closely, said the issues are targeted in phases.

Legal experts who are following the case said the list of Broward County residents has to narrow down to about 300 or 500 to proceed to the next phase of jury selection. Nearly 190 have moved forward, but the progress isn’t clear yet.

Scherer has sent out some potential jurors with hardship affidavits. Others have left with instructions to fill out a questionnaire and return it by May 10th. Attorneys expect the first phase to run through Wednesday and continue during the week of April 25th.

“This gives them the ability to exercise whatever other challenges might arise based on the personal biases that people are going to be questioned about concerning the death penalty and a potential connection to this matter,” Weinstein said about the questionnaire.

Coverage of jury selection: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

Bogenschutz, who is not involved in the case, said some of the potential jurors like the woman who is a BSO employee will likely be dismissed during the second phase of jury selection.

“You know she is not going to be able to sit, but she is seating now,” Bogenschutz said about the BSO employee.

A woman who works for Broward County Public Schools in a cafeteria had a similar situation on Tuesday. She told Scherer the massacre at MSD hit too close to home and she was incapable of being impartial. She wasn’t dismissed.

“Just because jurors survived the first cut they may have some issues that arrive that prevent them from being part of the larger panel,” Weinstein said.

As the pool shrinks during the process, both the defense and the prosecution will have 10 peremptory strikes to dismiss potential jurors without having to explain the reason. A judge can increase the number of strikes.

Scherer’s goal is to narrow the long list to 20, so 12 can serve in the jury box and eight alternate jurors can wait on standby in case there need to be replacements. She aims to be ready to begin testimony in June, so jurors can deliberate sometime in September.

For the death penalty to stand, the 12 jurors have to unanimously agree that Cruz must be executed for his crimes. If not, Scherer then will sentence Cruz to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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Legal commentary

April 12, 2022: Weinstein comments on Day 5 of jury selection

Attorney David Weinstein said Nikolas Cruz's defense could end up requesting to have the case moved to a courtroom in another part of the state.

April 11, 2022: Attorney Gail Levine on TWISF

With the Parkland school shooter’s case in mind, a former prosecutor with experience in death penalty cases said the perfect juror is someone who is willing to listen, think — and follow the law and “not necessarily their heart.”

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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."

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.