FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The search for the group of Broward County residents who will decide in court if Nikolas Cruz should be executed for his crimes continued on Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale. The five members of Cruz’s defense were all present after absentees over COVID-19.
Cruz, 23, was 19 years old when he used an AR-15 rifle to shoot 34 victims on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After years of delays, he plead guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in October. Jury selection started on April 4.
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer needs 18 to 20 jurors — 12 in the jury box and alternates. Hundreds on jury duty answered questions about hardship excuses. The narrowing of the jury pool continued with the individual interviews. The first questions focused on capital punishment.
Take for example a potential juror who said she had a background in social psychology who said:
“I have enough experience to know through my life. I have been, thought something is one thing, absolutely, and learned later on things, through things, that I learned maybe it wasn’t as cut and dry as things would appear.”
Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus wanted her to stay in the jury pool.
“She made it very clear that she would listen to all the evidence,” Marcus said.
Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill raised an objection. She wanted to strike her for cause, in part after hearing the potential juror say this:
“If imposing the death penalty on him may prevent some other want(ing) to be mass murderer from doing it, that would have some weight with me whether that would be a reason for saying yes to the death penalty.
“On the other hand, does adding to the body count of an already horrific murder make sense? But that’s when you talk about weighing. For me, that’s what it would come down to: Where does it make the most sense to impose the most absolute punishment that you can give somebody.”
“She would be giving weight to a non-statutory aggravator,” McNeill said, referring to evidence of aggravating factors a jury in a death penalty case would be asked to consider.
Scherer sided with the prosecution on the juror.
“I wholeheartedly disagree about whether she can’t be fair and impartial,” Scherer said. “I believe she absolutely can.”
The ongoing interviews also allow attorneys to gather information so they can best decide how to use their ten chances to dismiss potential jurors.
Attorney David S. Weinstein, a partner at Jones Walker LLP who has been following the case, said the court should not rush through the process.
“We all would like closure: The community, the victims’ families, everybody who is affected by this. But in order to have the closure that really sticks, you have to take your time,” Weinstein said. “You have to let the process play out, and you have to do your best to prevent there being any errors to take place that are going to rise to the level of a reversible and make us go through this all over again.”
Cruz’s defense filed a motion to delay the trial arguing the school shooting on May 24 in Uvalde, Texas will make it impossible for Cruz to get a fair jury. An 18-year-old shooter, also armed with an AR-15 rifle, killed 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 others.
For Cruz to be sentenced to the death penalty, all of the 12 jurors must agree. Otherwise, Scherer will have no choice but to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Scherer announced jury selection resumes at 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday.