Start of Parkland trial penalty phase testimony may be delayed

Pressure mounting on current trial schedule

Jury selection continued on Wednesday in the sentencing phase for the man convicted of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Jury selection continued on Wednesday in the sentencing phase for the man convicted of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The start of the penalty phase in the Nikolas Cruz capital case got underway April 4.

Jury pre-selection focused on hardships as the work gets underway to find a 12-member death-qualified jury and between six and eight alternates.

In October, Cruz said he was guilty of shooting and killing 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and staff members on Valentine’s Day 2018, setting up the penalty phase.

But on Wednesday afternoon, after the sixth day of that jury pre-selection process concluded, Broward Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer, facing mounting pressure to the current trial schedule, said in exasperation, “In what universe does it take in any case three months for Jury selection?”

Already delayed twice, the current schedule for the start of the penalty phase allows both parties to have the Thursday and Friday of each week in the months of April and May, as well as all of next week, available to schedule witness depositions ahead of what was a desired trial testimony start date of May 31.

The Judge has told prospective jurors over the past two weeks that trial testimony could run from June through September.

But since that amended trial schedule was set on April 1, public defender Tamara Curtis told the Judge they received notice from the state of four new state witnesses they would have to depose, accusing the state of a discovery violation.

Prosecutor Nicole Chiappone told the Judge it was not intentional, that they noticed the defense as soon as they hired them. She added that it took time to find experts in the fields related to certain complex reports about neuroimaging tools that the defense provided to them, they claim, last month.

The defense saying they now need more time to fit in the new depositions.

The judge indicated she will review the arguments pertaining to conducting a Richardson Hearing, an inquiry into circumstances surrounding an accusation of a discovery violation, and issue a ruling Thursday.

The discussion then shifted to jury selection itself with both sides seeking clarity from the Judge on structure, scope and timing of upcoming phases as they relate to starting the process of asking the prospective jurors who have cleared the first phase of hardship more substantive questions related to publicity and their death penalty views.

The first phase has been focused on finding people who would be able to sit for a trial ranging from June to September. Excusable hardships have included full time caregivers and those with financial hardships such as small business sole proprietors or those whose employers will not pay for that length of time.

Clarification questions swirled around when exactly both sides would have a chance to conduct individual questioning beyond asking about what the prospective jurors answered on a jury questionnaire. For example, explained lead prosecutor Mike Satz, the questionnaire asks about publicity but does not delve into how that effects them.

With guilt already established, the jurors in this penalty phase will decide if they will recommend that Cruz get life in prison without parole or unanimously choose death. They will need to be fair and impartial when it comes to sentencing.

As the attorneys tried to address confusion about how the Court plans to proceed through the upcoming phases and whether there has been enough time set aside for the deeper dive into critical questions pertaining to death penalty views, the Judge also highlighted efficiency.

“This is a death penalty case,” said prosecutor Carolyn McCann, “case law in very specific.”

She added that each side gets to rehabilitate a juror who expresses a view and that could time. It is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ situation she said.

McCann said that it cannot be done “efficiently” if it is going to be done “correctly.”

She also told the court what they are doing here is not just ‘for now’, but will be on the record for appellate review. Efficiency works in some circumstances, she said, but not in a death penalty case.

Melisa McNeill from the defense said minutes later that if “you want to do it right and do it once” she would recommend moving the schedule.

Also at issue, the state raised for consideration that a pre-trial hearing pertaining to the admissibility of complicated neurological evidence, test reports, and expert witness testimony may take longer than currently scheduled.

The Judge inquired if pushing the start of trial testimony back from May 31st to June 13th would allow both sides the time needed. While previously stating that she was not inclined to push back the start of trial testimony, she ended the proceeding telling the attorneys she would take all that she heard under advisement and get back to them.

Court hearing video of the events described in this story can be seen below:

oward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is presiding over Cruz’s capital trial.

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Related documents

Order on Alleged Discovery Violation

Order on Release of Records


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."