Jury questionnaire released in Parkland school shooter’s penalty phase trial

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – During the first six days of the jury pre-selection process in the Parkland school shooting capital case, prospective jurors who have not been excused for a hardship have been handed a jury questionnaire, and a day in May to be brought back for future questioning.

The document includes general background questions to include marital status, ethnicity, and the age, education and employment of household members. It includes instructions for prospective jurors to answer the questions “individually” and not share the answers they provide to other jurors.

The questionnaire asks about any organizations potential jurors have supported, explores possible connections to the criminal justice system, their news consumption preferences and social media usage.

The final pages begin to tackle any known connections to the incident, the location of the deadly school shooting, and knowledge of the case. This includes asking if they, or someone they know, works for Broward County Public Schools. They are also asked if any family members have attended, worked or volunteered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Other questions explore if they know anyone involved with the case.

Question 70 then asks a question central to the effort to select a fair and impartial 12-member, death-qualified jury: “There are two possible punishments for a person that is convicted of first-degree murder: life without the possibility of parole, or death. Without regard to this particular case, what are your general feelings about the death penalty?”

With guilt already established when Nikolas Cruz entered guilty pleas in October to shooting and killing 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and staff on Valentine’s Day 2018, the jury in this penalty phase of the trial will be asked if they can be fair and impartial when it comes to sentencing.

Prospective jurors are also being asked to individually answer if there is “anything about this case” that may prevent them from following a requirement that they “take an oath that they will decide the facts in this case according to the evidence and the law,” and whether “there is any matter that you should call to the court’s attention that may have any bearing on your qualifications to serve as a juror, or that may affect your ability to render an impartial verdict based solely on the evidence or the lack thereof and the court’s instruction on the law.”

Legal analyst David Bogenschutz told Local 10′s Christina Vazquez the questionnaire “cues up the issues” for attorneys, who in an upcoming phase of the weeks-long jury selection process will begin asking more probative questions to include understanding their death penalty views.

Related Link: Plenty at stake in Parkland shooter trial and shouldn’t be rushed, lawyers say

Legal analyst David Weinstein says their, “answers about general feelings about the death penalty won’t automatically disqualify any potential juror, but will be an area that each side can explore in detail in an effort to rehabilitate that jurors feelings to the point where they would state that despite their general feelings about the death penalty, they could be a fair and impartial juror in this case.  It is a high hurdle, but not one that can’t be overcome.”

Weinstein also said one of the thought-provoking questions about pre-trial publicity is the question, “that asks potential jurors whether or not they have ‘seen or heard anyone speak about the case or share their opinions about an appropriate sentence in this case.’”

He said those opinions would also, “include opinions shared on social media,” adding, “just hearing someone else’s opinion or viewpoint on the appropriate penalty is not enough to disqualify a juror. The question is how hardened is your position prior to hearing or seeing any evidence being presented to you in court, on the issue of the appropriate penalty.”

Another question Weinstein highlighted is the one where prospective jurors are asked if they have ‘attended any sort of event that is in any way related to this case such as a vigil, commemoration event, memorial service, march, protest, public meeting, worship service.’

“This question seeks to probe into the level of interest a potential juror might have had to be part of the community supporting the victims or the defendant,” he said, adding that it will allow both sides, “to determine whether or not a potential juror can actually be fair and impartial and only consider the evidence presented in court during the penalty phase trial. Selecting a death qualified jury is a long, thoughtful and delicate process. It is one that must be approached with consideration and patience.”

Related Link: Jury can see Parkland shooter’s Instagram, judge says

During a hearing last week, Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann told the judge that “case law is very specific that each side gets to rehabilitate a juror who expresses a view and that takes time,” adding, “it is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ -- that’s not a two-minute, sometimes it is not a five-or 10-minute conversation -- there is a back and forth.”

During the penalty phase, the state will present jurors with evidence of aggravated factors they want them to consider.

Florida statutes state the jury will determine if the state has proved at least one aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt: “A finding that an aggravating factor exists must be unanimous. If the jury does not unanimously find at least one aggravating factor, the defendant is ineligible for the sentence of death.”

Aggravating factors can include that the “defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons” and that the capital offense was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” or that it was a homicide “committed in a cold, calculated and premediated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification.”

The defense will present evidence of mitigating circumstances they will want the jury to consider. In this case, this is anticipated to be evidence related to Cruz’s background, childhood and history of behavioral issues.

Related Link: Discussion of Parkland shooter’s mental health: ‘Hatred’ one of personalities who committed crimes

According to Florida statutes, mitigating circumstances can include that the defendant “has no history of prior criminal activity” or that the “capacity of the defendant to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired.”

Cruz was 19 years old at the time of the tragic school shooting. Another mitigating circumstance a jury can consider per Florida statutes is the “age of the defendant at the time of the crime.”

Prospective jurors are also anticipated to hear victim impact evidence.

Related Link: Victim impact statements take center stage in Parkland pre-trial hearing

Jury selection is set to resume April 25. This week, the court reserved for attorneys to schedule witness depositions. The start of trial testimony is now expected to begin June 13.

VIEW BELOW: Jury questionnaire issued for penalty phase of Parkland school shooter’s penalty phase trial.


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."