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Parkland mass shooter finally faces judgment. Jury selection to begin on Monday

By David Ovalle, Miami Herald
Published: April 1, 2022, 8:10am

MIAMI — More than four years after he gunned down 17 people at a Parkland high school, Nikolas Cruz is finally set to face judgment in a Broward County courtroom.

On Monday, barring any unexpected delays, prosecutors and defense attorneys will begin the process of selecting 12 jurors to decide one remaining question about the confessed and convicted mass murderer. Should he live or die?

Under Florida law, a decision to execute Cruz will have to be a unanimous one. Finding a dozen people to make it— plus alternates — is expected to take weeks.

Given the immense publicity, the brutal details of the murders of innocent school children and the difficult prospect of potentially sentencing someone to die, legal experts say finding willing jurors who say they also can be impartial will be a challenge.

“It will be a long and arduous process. It will be difficult to find jurors without an opinion,” said retired Miami-Dade senior prosecutor Gail Levine, who is not involved in the case. “Remember, it’s OK to know about the case. But a juror cannot serve if they have already formulated an opinion about the penalty before the case is presented.”

Jury selection is expected to last throughout April. Once a jury is seated, the trial could last between four and up to six months, lawyers said in court this week, further complicating the selection process.

“We all acknowledge this is going to be an inconvenience for whoever sits on this case. Our goal should not be focused on how quickly we get this done but that we get it done right,” Broward Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill told the judge on Wednesday.

The jury won’t be deciding on Cruz’s guilt. Back in November, Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder, and 17 counts of attempted murder, setting the stage for what is known as the “penalty phase,” or a trial solely to decide whether Cruz gets life in prison, or will be executed.

The trial will nonetheless be extensive — prosecutors must still present scores of witnesses and introduce hundreds of pieces of evidence to show that, among other reasons, Cruz acted in such a cruel and calculated way that he deserves to be put to death.

“There were 17 people killed. And so there is, in essence, a story about the deaths of 17 different people,” Broward prosecutor Jeffrey Marcus said in court on Wednesday.

As for Cruz’s defense, jurors will be asked to consider “mitigating” factors, such as his tumultuous family life, a long history of mental-health disorders, brain damage caused by his mother’s drug and alcohol use, and claims that he was bullied and sexually abused by a “trusted peer.”

The defense will introduce a battery of experts and may also use controversial “brain mapping” technology to show Cruz’s brain is abnormal.

An unprecedented trial

The trial will be unlike any other ever held in Broward County.

Proceedings will be broadcast live online, Court TV, from a cavernous courtroom in the new wing of Broward’s justice center. Members from 25 news companies have been credentialed to cover the trial in person. Sheriff’s deputies will provide tight security inside and outside the building.

Relatives of the dead, still grappling with the senseless murders, will watch in court and online.

Testimony will be gut-wrenching, detailing the morning of Feb 18, 2018, when Cruz took an Uber ride to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, his former school, and methodically stalked the halls, gunning down people with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.

The trial could even feature the rare jury site visit — prosecutors say it’s important to show jurors the interior of the freshman building, which has been locked up and sealed since the massacre.

“There is no one video, photograph, poster, film, anything, that captures what the … building is,” prosecutor Carolyn McCann told the judge. “The jury has to know the footsteps, the distance, the perspective, the visual acuity the defendant had to have.”

Defense lawyers argue the scene visit — still stained with blood, marked by bullet holes — will only serve to “inflame” the emotions of the jury. Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer is still weighing the decision.

But before witnesses are sworn in to tell their stories, lawyers must settle on a jury qualified to serve in a death-penalty case — no easy task, even in a less-visible capital case.

Earlier trial an indicator?

If Cruz’s earlier trial is any indication, it’ll be a slow haul.

Last October, Cruz started trial for attacking a jail officer nine months following the Parkland massacre. During jury selection, many prospective jurors, including teachers or Parkland residents, were dismissed after saying they couldn’t judge Cruz fairly.

On the first day, two women burst out crying at simply seeing Cruz. Ultimately, Cruz pleaded guilty to battery before testimony began.

The “visceral emotional response” of potential jurors to the case is to be expected, given Parkland’s place in the nation’s long and terrible history of mass shootings at schools, said University of Miami law professor Craig Trocino, who is the director of the school’s Innocence Clinic.

“There’s a lot of emotions wrapped up in this, from the amazing advocacy some of the surviving students have engaged in over the years, to the other side — which is dark and ugly,” said Trocino. “That’s why, in this case, all of Cruz’s constitutional safeguard have to be scrupulously honored.”

Over the weeks, Judge Scherer and attorneys could question thousands of prospective jurors, first culling out those who can’t serve because of scheduling and others hardships. Then, they’ll be grilled about how they’ve consumed publicity surrounding the massacre — and how it has shaped their ability to follow the law and serve impartially.

“In Broward, unless we’re at nuclear war with Russia, it’s going to be on the front page every day, all day,” said Abe Laeser, a retired Miami-Dade homicide prosecutor. “That’s one of the reasons it’s going to be so hard.”

Despite the rise in digital and social media, it’s rare for courts to move a trial because of pervasive publicity.

In 2008, a Miami-Dade judge ordered the trial of Southwood Middle killer Michael Hernandez moved to Orlando, after lawyers found that a great number of prospective jurors had already formed opinions about the infamous murder of a teenage boy. Hernandez was convicted in Orlando and sentenced to life in prison.

But attorneys in plenty of high-profile Florida murder cases have succeeded in picking juries.

Among the defendants who had trials in their original jurisdiction: George Zimmerman, who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her daughter, and Eric Rivera, the teen who shot and killed NFL star Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman and Anthony won their cases.

So far, attorneys in Cruz’s case have not suggested a change of venue.

And just as challenging, attorneys will need to probe juror candidates’ views on the death penalty, and whether they could consider imposing the ultimate sentence on Cruz.

“Anyone who walks in and says, ‘I’m not sure how I feel about death penalty’ is on their way to getting excused,” Laeser said. “Unfortunately for the defense, you’re going to be left with a lot of people whose inherit belief is, ‘Why not trade one life for the 17 he took.”

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Must be a unanimous decision on death

Cruz’s case will be the most closely watched capital case to unfold since Florida, forced by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, in 2017 required jurors to be unanimous when deciding to sent someone to Death Row. For decades before, Florida jurors only needed a majority vote to recommend the death penalty, with the judge imposing the actual sentence.

Now, Cruz’s defense team can hope to get at least one holdout for life — a deadlocked jury, under Florida law, results in an automatic life sentence.

The Broward Public Defender’s Office has long offered to allow Cruz to be sentenced to life in prison, in exchange for a waiver of the death penalty. Broward prosecutors, faced with some victims’ families who want to see Cruz die at the hands of the state, have declined.

“This case will really decide whether the death penalty is an option in Florida,” said Levine, the former Miami-Dade prosecutor. “Remember, it’s a one juror veto. People will say if Cruz doesn’t get it, who should? I think the penalty is on trial here.”