FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The first day of jury selection in the worst U.S. mass shooting to go to trial was slow, methodical and painstaking — a process that is expected to drag on for two months.
More than 120 of the first 160 prospective jurors who filed through Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer’s courtroom on Monday were dismissed. Most said it would be impossible for them to serve from June through September. That's the amount of time it is expected to take for lawyers to present their cases in a trial that will end with a jury deciding whether Nikolas Cruz gets life in prison or a sentence of death for murdering 17 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
A few were dismissed because of health issues, because they don't speak English fluently or because they had already paid for extensive vacations.
A woman was dismissed when she began crying upon seeing Cruz — not a new occurrence; that also happened to three women at an October hearing. Another prospective juror had a personal connection to Scherer, having taught her how to roller-skate as a child. Yet another had met Cruz in 2016 on a group outing, while one woman was excused after saying she couldn't serve on a jury because she needed to meet up with her “sugar daddy” every day.
“I'm seeing double. I've seen a lot of people,” Scherer said at the end of the day. “For Day 1, things went rather smoothly.”
Cruz, 23, sat between his attorneys, wearing a green sweater and an anti-viral face mask, four sheriff’s deputies sitting nearby. He spoke only briefly at the start of the hearing, waiving his right to participate directly in the screening process. He pleaded guilty in October, meaning the jury will only decide if he gets death or life without parole.
Eight parents and other family members of some victims sat together in the courtroom. They declined to comment as they left.
Approximately 1,500 potential jurors, perhaps more, will be screened over the next few weeks as the pool is pared down to 12 plus eight alternates in a three-step process that will run through the end of May.
In the first screening, they are only being asked about hardships and conflicts. With the exception of the woman who met Cruz, they were not asked on Monday for their opinions about the death penalty or whether they could be fair. Those who said they could serve were given questionnaires to fill out in another room. The questionnaires will be given to lawyers in advance of the next round.
One prospective juror said she met Cruz in 2016 when she went with a group of friends to a lake cabin for a weekend and an acquaintance invited him along. The woman, who appeared to be in her early 20s, said she had few interactions with Cruz, but he seemed perhaps “mentally not together.” She was dismissed after saying she could not envision many circumstances where she would even consider voting for a life sentence.
The Parkland shooting is the deadliest in the U.S. ever to make it to trial. Seven other U.S. 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 at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart is still awaiting trial.
Death penalty trials in Florida and much of the country often take two years to start because of their complexity, but Cruz's was further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and extensive legal wrangling.
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the attack, said before Monday's hearing that 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 manner and murdered my beautiful daughter, 13 of her classmates and three of her teachers.”
The parents and spouses of victims who have spoken publicly said they are in favor of Cruz's execution. Montalto has not answered the question directly, but has said on multiple occasions that Cruz "deserves every chance he gave Gina and the others.”
When the prospective jurors who pass the initial screening return for individual questioning several weeks from now, both prosecutors and the defense can challenge any for cause. Scherer will eliminate candidates who lawyers from either side have convinced her would be prejudiced against their side. Each side will also get at least 10 peremptory strikes, where either 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 outweigh such mitigating factors as his lifelong mental illness and the death of his parents.
If any juror disagrees, Cruz will receive a life sentence.