Rare normalcy returns to trial of Florida school shooter

Jun 6, 2022, 9:14 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2022, 3:16 pm

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz and capital defense attorney Casey Secor ...

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz and capital defense attorney Casey Secor speak during a break in jury selection in the penalty phase of Cruz's trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Secor was back in court after the proceedings were delayed Monday due to his illness and quarantine. Cruz previously plead guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

(Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Rare normalcy returned to jury selection for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s penalty trial Tuesday, one day after his public defenders threatened to withdraw over the judge’s insistence that they proceed without a key member who had COVID-19.

Potential jurors were asked their thoughts about the death penalty and whether they could be fair to Cruz and the prosecution, exactly as planned — frequently not the case so far in this trial.

All five members of his defense team were present, including Casey Secor, a South Carolina death penalty specialist whose absence Monday because of illness set off long and heated arguments between Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer and Melisa McNeill, his lead attorney.

Those included a threat by McNeill that her team would not participate if Scherer proceeded without Secor present, a warning by Scherer for McNeill to consult the Florida Bar about what sanctions she would face if that happened and a motion by McNeill for Scherer to remove herself from the case, saying the judge is biased against Cruz. Scherer rejected that motion.

Still undecided is a motion by the defense to delay the trial because of the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead. McNeill’s team argues that the shooting has again raised emotions in Broward County and makes it impossible for him to get a fair trial currently.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 17 at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. The 12 jurors and eight alternates eventually selected will decide whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole.

Monday’s fighting was just the latest in a series of conflicts and oddities that have plagued jury selection and turned it into a slog since it began two months ago.

One day, the sheriff’s deputies who guard the courtroom thought some potential jurors were about to attack Cruz and pulled him to safety as they quickly removed the threatening panelists. On another, Scherer had to dismiss a group of potential jurors because one wore a T-shirt referencing the shooting that supported the victims and survivors. Selection was also delayed two weeks when McNeill contracted COVID-19.

When jury selection began April 4, it was expected to take about a month but it is now apparent it won’t be completed before early July, at best. It is being conducted in three phases. In Phase 1, 1,800 potential jurors were simply asked if they could serve for a four-month trial. That pared the pool to 400.

Now in Phase 2, the potential jurors are being brought back in groups of about 10, two to four per day, to be asked if they could vote for either possible verdict, death or life, based solely on the evidence presented. Those who say they have already decided Cruz should die or are opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances are dismissed. Of about 165 screened so far, 50 have been moved to Phase 3. Scherer wants a pool of 150 for that process.

Whenever that phase starts, the jurors will be asked more specific and personal questions. Each side can then try to convince Scherer that certain candidates are biased against their side and ask her to dismiss them. They will each also have at least 10 peremptory challenges where they can dismiss a potential juror for any reason except race or gender.

When a jury is finally seated, they will have to decide whether the aggravating factors such as Cruz’s multiple victims, his planning, the terror he created and the cruelty he showed outweigh such mitigating circumstances as his long history of mental and emotional problems, his possible sexual abuse and the death of his parents. For him to get death, the jurors must unanimously agree. If one or more vote for life, that will be his sentence.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


moore redmond washington...

Associated Press

U.S. Supreme Court rules against Redmond couple challenging foreign income tax

The court ruled in the case of Charles and Kathleen Moore, of Redmond, Washington after they previously challenged a $15,000 tax bill.

5 days ago

Image:The New York Giants' Willie Mays poses for a photo during baseball spring training in 1972. M...

Associated Press

Willie Mays, Giants’ electrifying ‘Say Hey Kid,’ dies at 93

Willie Mays, whose singular combination of talent, drive and exuberance made him one of baseball’s greatest players, has died. He was 93.

6 days ago

Image: This photo provided by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a derailed BNSF train on t...

Associated Press

Judge orders BNSF to pay Washington tribe nearly $400M for trespassing with oil trains

BNSF Railway must pay the sum to a Native American tribe in Washington after it ran 100-car trains with crude oil on the tribe's reservation.

8 days ago

Photo: In this photo provided by Tieanna Joseph Cade, an amusement park ride is shown stuck with 30...

Associated Press

Crews rescue 28 people trapped upside down high on Oregon amusement park ride

Emergency crews in Oregon rescued 28 people after they were stuck dangling upside down high on a ride at a century-old amusement park.

8 days ago

juneteenth shooting texas...

Associated Press

2 killed and 6 wounded in shooting during a Juneteenth celebration in a Texas park

A shooting in a Texas park left two people dead and six wounded, including two children, on Saturday, authorities said.

9 days ago

Photo: Israeli soldiers drive a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, Wednesday, J...

Jack Jeffery, The Associated Press

8 Israeli soldiers killed in southern Gaza in deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months

An explosion in Gaza killed eight Israeli soldiers, the military said Saturday, making it the deadliest attack on Israeli forces in months.

10 days ago

Rare normalcy returns to trial of Florida school shooter