Jury selection in the deadliest U.S. mass shooting ever to go to trial began Monday with preliminary screening for the panel that will determine whether Nikolas Cruz will be put to death for murdering 17 students and staff members at a Parkland, Florida, high school.
Eighteen members of the first panel of 60 prospective jurors survived the only question they were asked by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer: Could they serve in a trial that is expected to last from June to September? The 18 will be brought back in several weeks for questioning about whether they could judge Cruz fairly and their views on the death penalty. Two more groups are expected to be screened Monday.
Court officials have said 1,500 candidates or more could be brought before Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz’s attorneys for preliminary screening. The expected two-month process will pick 12 panelists 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 if he receives a death sentence or life without parole.
Cruz sat between his attorneys, wearing a gray sweater and an anti-viral face mask, four sheriff’s deputies sitting nearby. He spoke only briefly, waiving his right to participate directly in the screening process.
Eight parents and other family members of some victims sat together in the courtroom.
When prospective jurors are brought back in a few weeks, they will be asked whether they can judge the case fairly. They also will be asked if they can vote for the death penalty if the evidence supports that verdict, but don’t believe it should be mandatory for murder. Those who can’t will be dismissed.
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 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.