Rare normalcy returns to trial of Florida school shooter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Rare normalcy returned to jury selection for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s penalty trial Tuesday, one day after his public defenders threatened to withdraw over the judge’s insistence that they proceed without a key member who had COVID-19.

Potential jurors were asked their thoughts about the death penalty and whether they could be fair to Cruz and the prosecution, exactly as planned — frequently not the case so far in this trial.

All five members of his defense team were present, including Casey Secor, a South Carolina death penalty specialist whose absence Monday because of illness set off long and heated arguments between Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer and Melisa McNeill, his lead attorney.

Those included a threat by McNeill that her team would not participate if Scherer proceeded without Secor present, a warning by Scherer for McNeill to consult the Florida Bar about what sanctions she would face if that happened and a motion by McNeill for Scherer to remove herself from the case, saying the judge is biased against Cruz. Scherer rejected that motion.

Still undecided is a motion by the defense to delay the trial because of the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead. McNeill’s team argues that the shooting has again raised emotions in Broward County and makes it impossible for him to get a fair trial currently.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 17 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. The 12 jurors and eight alternates eventually selected will decide whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole.

Monday’s fighting was just the latest in a series of conflicts and oddities that have plagued jury selection and turned it into a slog since it began two months ago.

One day, the sheriff’s deputies who guard the courtroom thought some potential jurors were about to attack Cruz and pulled him to safety as they quickly removed the threatening panelists. On another, Scherer had to dismiss a group of potential jurors because one wore a T-shirt referencing the shooting that supported the victims and survivors. Selection was also delayed two weeks when McNeill contracted COVID-19.

When jury selection began April 4, it was expected to take about a month but it is now apparent it won’t be completed before early July, at best. It is being conducted in three phases. In Phase 1, 1,800 potential jurors were simply asked if they could serve for a four-month trial. That pared the pool to 400.

Now in Phase 2, the potential jurors are being brought back in groups of about 10, two to four per day, to be asked if they could vote for either possible verdict, death or life, based solely on the evidence presented. Those who say they have already decided Cruz should die or are opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances are dismissed. Of about 165 screened so far, 50 have been moved to Phase 3. Scherer wants a pool of 150 for that process.

Whenever that phase starts, the jurors will be asked more specific and personal questions. Each side can then try to convince Scherer that certain candidates are biased against their side and ask her to dismiss them. They will each also have at least 10 peremptory challenges where they can dismiss a potential juror for any reason except race or gender.

When a jury is finally seated, they will have to decide whether the aggravating factors such as Cruz’s multiple victims, his planning, the terror he created and the cruelty he showed outweigh such mitigating circumstances as his long history of mental and emotional problems, his possible sexual abuse and the death of his parents. For him to get death, the jurors must unanimously agree. If one or more vote for life, that will be his sentence.

Terry Spencer
Terry Spencer
I cover Florida, primarily Broward and Palm Beach counties.