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Jury selection begins in sentencing trial for Parkland Gunman


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – In the four years since a former student killed 17 people and injured 17 others in Parkland, Fla., the classroom building where the shooting took place has stood. , unused and fenced, on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

One day, it was thought, the shooter might stand trial and prosecutors might want to take jurors there to witness the remaining horrors of the February 14, 2018 tragedy.

That trial began Monday at a Fort Lauderdale courthouse with the initial stages of jury selection in the state’s case against gunman Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty in October to 17 murders and 17 attempted murders. murder. Now a jury will have to decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

Although the trial will only have a sentencing phase, it could still last four to six months, according to lawyers for both sides. Prosecutors will detail how the shooter planned his rampage and killed or injured each of his victims. His public defense lawyers will expose his difficult family life, his mental health issues and his attempts at treatment. Testimonies are expected from many victims and mental health experts.

Jury selection alone is expected to last until May, given how difficult it is expected to be to find prospects who will be available for such a lengthy trial and who will be impartial in a death penalty case that has done so much of advertising. No less than 1,500 people could be summoned over the next few weeks. Twelve jurors and eight alternates must be chosen. Judge Elizabeth Scherer said Monday the trial is set to begin on May 31.

Enduring a long televised trial full of grisly evidence is certain to exact an emotional and painful toll on the two communities, Stoneman Douglas and Parkland, whose names have become synonymous with America’s unbridled gun violence. The shooting, at a school of largely affluent teenagers expressing their political views, sparked a national gun control movement and propelled young people and some of their parents into sustained activism.

After the Parkland shootings, Florida enacted some gun restrictions, although the following year allowed some school staff to carry guns. The tumultuous local repercussions of the shooting included the removal of the sheriff-elect and the resignation of the superintendent of the county school system, following a perjury charge stemming from a grand jury investigation. Separately, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to Stoneman Douglas is awaiting trial on charges of criminal neglect of a child for remaining outside the building during the shooting.

The superintendent and deputy pleaded not guilty.

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, was killed in the shooting; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicolas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Christopher Hixon, 49; Luc Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Olivier, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16, and Peter Wang, 15.

On Monday, less than a dozen family members sat quietly in the courtroom, watching the proceedings intently. The shooter, dressed in an olive green sweater over a collared shirt, sat with his lawyers up front.

Judge Scherer asked potential jurors about scheduling conflicts or other obstacles that might prevent them from sitting for the duration of the trial. Those who did not were asked to complete questionnaires about their background and ability to handle graphic evidence. The remaining group of jurors will be asked to return in a few weeks for courtroom interviews to assess whether they can be impartial.

“Please don’t discuss this matter with anyone,” the judge urged.

A murmur rose from the first group of prospective jurors when Judge Scherer told them that the trial could last until September. Many offered reasons why sitting on the jury would be an extreme inconvenience, a sign of the lengthy selection process ahead. A man said he operated a restaurant. Another said his employer would not pay him if selected. A woman said she was taking care of her grandchildren. Another said she was about to start a new job as a nurse.

“I’m a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory – if I’m not working they don’t pay me,” one man said. If the restaurant had to, the man added, he would only pay him $8 an hour. “And I’m not going to go into debt,” he said.

Of the first batch of 60 potential jurors, 18 were asked to complete questionnaires and return in May.

That the shooter faces legal punishment is unusual for mass shootings, in which perpetrators often die, either by suicide or by being killed by police.

The shooter’s guilt was never in doubt: police captured him within hours of the shooting and his lawyers offered a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. (He was 19 at the time and is now 23.) But Broward County District Attorney Michael J. Satz denied that appeal, saying he was obligated to seek capital punishment for such a heinous crime. .

Mr. Satz, a Democrat, has since retired, and Broward voters elected a new Democratic prosecutor, Harold F. Pryor, who opposes the death penalty. But Mr. Satz stayed to pursue the case against the shooter and pursue his death sentence. Such a sentence would require a unanimous jury; under Florida law, a single dissent would prevent Judge Scherer from imposing the death penalty.

The shooter’s trial, originally scheduled for 2020, has been repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year he faced a separate lawsuit related to a fight with a sheriff’s deputy in November 2018 while in jail. But during jury selection for that case, several would-be jurors wept after seeing the shooter, underscoring how traumatized locals remain. He, too, sobbed in front of potential jurors.

Shortly after, before that trial could begin, the shooter pleaded guilty to battery and other charges in that case – and to murder and attempted murder charges in the shooting case.

“I’m really sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day,” he told the families of the victims the day he pleaded guilty. “I love you and I know you don’t believe me,” he added.

Public records and investigations revealed a series of missed opportunities to intervene in the shooter’s life, as it appeared to take place before the shooting. At one point, school officials and a sheriff’s deputy wanted him to be forcibly committed for psychiatric evaluation, but he never was.

The FBI did not investigate reports of his interest in school shootings. Last month, the Justice Department finalized a $127.5 million settlement for 40 of the victims and their survivors. A separate settlement was reached last year with Broward County Public Schools for $25 million.

The shooter, a former Stoneman Douglas student, recorded three videos on his cellphone prior to the shooting. “You’re all going to die,” he said in one.

Armed with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle, he killed 14 students and three faculty members in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, targeting them from the halls of Building 12, also known as the first grade building name.

Covered in bullets, stained with blood and strewn with valentines, the building has not been used since. The school district plans to tear it down eventually.

Prosecutors have said they may want to take jurors into the building during the trial. Defense lawyers countered that such a tour would only “inflame” emotions.

The judge is still deciding whether she will allow it.

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