FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Jury selection in the deadliest mass shooting ever on trial will begin Monday with a preliminary panel selection that will determine whether Nikolas Cruz will be put to death for the murder of 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Florida, high school.
Court officials said 1,500 or more applicants could be brought before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz’s public defenders for an initial screening over the next few weeks. The final jury will consist of 12 jurors plus eight alternates. Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, meaning the jury will only decide whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole.
Seven other American killers who fatally shot at least 17 people died during or immediately after their attacks, either by suicide or at the hands of police. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, Walmart is still awaiting trial.
Death penalty trials in Florida and much of the country often take two years to start due to their complexity, but Cruz’s has been further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and extensive legal wrangling.
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the attack, said the trial “has been a long time coming”.
“I just hope everyone remembers the victims,” he said. Cruz, he said, “told the world his plans on social media, carried out those plans in a cold and calculated way, and murdered my beautiful daughter, 13 of her classmates, and three of her teachers.”
The parents and spouses of the victims who spoke publicly said they were in favor of Cruz’s execution. Montalto didn’t answer the question directly, but repeatedly said that Cruz “deserves every chance he gave Gina and the others.”
From Monday to Wednesday for most of the next few weeks, potential jurors will be brought into the courtroom in groups of 60, about four a day.
They will be asked if they can put aside any animosity towards Cruz and judge the case fairly. They will then be asked if they are available from June to September. From each group, Scherer hopes there will be five left.
Candidates who pass these hurdles will be taken to another room, where they will complete a questionnaire about their background and beliefs for the lawyers to review later. They will be brought back in a few weeks for individual questioning. To qualify for the jury, they must say they can vote for the death penalty if the evidence supports that verdict, but also don’t think it should be mandatory for murder.
Prosecutors and the defense may challenge any prospective juror for cause. Scherer will weed out candidates whose lawyers on both sides have convinced her they would be biased against them. Each side will also receive at least 10 peremptory strikes, where either side can eliminate a candidate for any reason except race or gender.
For Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, to get the death penalty, the jury must unanimously agree that aggravating factors such as the number of people he killed, his planning and his cruelty outweighed mitigating factors such as his lifelong mental illness and the death of his parents.
If a juror disagrees, Cruz will be sentenced to life.