FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A man who was on jury duty was enraged when he saw Nikolas Cruz on Tuesday during the Broward County court’s second attempt at jury selection in Fort Lauderdale. He hurled insults. A bailiff escorted him out, as he shook his head and said, “That is horrible!”
Others followed with expletives. A woman who was on jury duty stood up and walked out of the courtroom. A bailiff moved Cruz away from his defense attorneys. Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies took a defensive stance.
“I was not aware that’s what was going to happen to Mr. Cruz — meaning him being put against the wall, his hands behind his back,” Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill said in court.
Deputies were following protocol to protect Cruz. Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer described the disruptors as “belligerent” and she dismissed the group of about 60 who witnessed the ruckus while on jury duty.
Mitch and Annika Dworet sat in silence. The grieving parents were just feet away from the man who killed their 17-year-old son Nicholas and injured their son Alexander — when a bullet grazed him in the back of the head. Nicholas was an avid swimmer who had committed to the University of Indianapolis.
It has been more than four years after the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and the search for the jurors who will have to decide if Cruz should be killed as a punishment for his crimes faced more hurdles.
Cruz, was 19 years old when he arrived at his former school on Feb. 14, 2018, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle. He admitted to shooting 34 people — 17 died. In October, Cruz, now 23, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Since it’s a death penalty case, the 12 adults selected to serve as jurors must eventually vote on whether or not they think Cruz should be executed. If they disagree, Scherer’s only option will be to sentence Cruz to life in prison without parole.
The American Bar Association defines a good juror as “fair and impartial, rather than unfair and biased.” Scherer wants 12 jurors to weigh in on the evidence and eight alternate jurors to be ready to step in if something happens to them.
The last time the Dworets were in court was April 4th when jury selection began. On Monday, Scherer decided to restart the jury selection process. Cruz’s defense was preparing to argue against her decision.
“I am giving them an opportunity to change my mind,” Scherer said in court adding the defense had until Wednesday.
Scherer’s decision followed the prosecution’s claim there was an error. It stemmed from Scherer’s decision to dismiss 11 potential jurors on April 5 after they said they would not follow Florida’s capital punishment laws.
Attorneys expected the 11 to return on Monday, and when they didn’t, Scherer said there was a miscommunication. She also said she didn’t believe there was a procedural error or that the alleged error would disqualify the process.
“It’s better just to start fresh,” Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann said in court Monday about the potential for an appeal over errors.
On Tuesday, in front of a new panel of 70 potential jurors, Scherer said the jury needs to be ready for opening statements by the defense and the prosecution on June 21st. Scherer’s previous scheduling goals had been May 31st and June 14th.
The first phase of jury selection focused on whether or not the Broward County residents who were on jury duty had any legitimate reason not to be able to serve from June to September. The reasons, according to Florida rules, include “hardship, extreme inconvenience or public necessity.”
There was a woman who went viral on social media after she said not seeing her “sugar daddy” presented a financial hardship. A man said his wife had surgery and he wanted to take care of her. A school cafeteria worker and a Broward Sheriff’s Office employee had made the first cut, but legal experts doubted they would make it to the jury box.
To start the search all over again, the court’s time screening hundreds of Broward County residents who responded to jury duty was lost. McNeill criticized Scherer’s decision in court on Monday.
“We believe you are committing more error by striking a total of 254,” McNeill said about the group that had been qualified to pass to the next phase of jury selection.
Legal experts following the case are waiting to see if Scherer reverses her decision. Some have criticized the 42-year-old former prosecutor for the April 5th dismissal. Robert M. Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor, has experience in maritime and international law. He also has expertise in gaming law and the Florida Constitution.
“Very much a rookie mistake. I don’t think there is any question that she is in over her head,” Jarvis said adding, “Not matter what the judge does, the error is there, and it will potentially provide the basis for an appeal down the road, which means that we could be doing this all over again down the road.”
Former Gov. Rick Scott, now a Republican senator, appointed Scherer to the 17th Judicial Circuit in 2012. She was elected in 2014 and reelected in 2020. Her father, William Scherer, advised Scott and worked for George W. Bush on the 2000 presidential election recount before he became the 43rd president of the United States.
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