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Jury selection in the death penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 students and staff in a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, begins Monday after years of delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cruz, 23, has already pleaded guilty to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School murders, which means a jury will decide whether he faces life in prison or the death penalty. It is the deadliest American mass shooting ever.

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.

Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, will only be sentenced to death if the jury unanimously agrees that aggravating factors such as the number of people he killed, his planning and his cruelty outweigh factors mitigating factors such as his lifelong mental illness and the death of his parents.

If a juror disagrees, Cruz will be sentenced to life.

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 El Paso, Texas, Walmart massacre of 23 people is still awaiting trial.

Death penalty trials in Florida and much of the United States often take two years to start due to their complexity. The Cruz trial was further delayed by Covid-19 and legal wrangling.

Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting, said the trial “has been a long time coming”.

“I just hope everyone remembers the victims,” ​​he told The Associated Press.

Cruz, Montalto 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 clear these hurdles will be taken to another room, where they will complete a questionnaire about their background and beliefs for the attorneys to review.

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.

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