(PARKLAND, Fla.) — Jury selection in the death penalty trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is set to resume on Monday after dissolving into disarray last week when the presiding judge admitted she erroneously dismissed prospective jurors and other would-be panelists were cut loose for threatening the defendant.
The 23-year-old Cruz has pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder stemming from the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The Broward County Circuit Court jury being picked for the case will eventually recommend if Cruz, 23, should be sentenced to death or be sent to prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole.
Presiding Judge Elizabeth Scherer admitted last week that she made an error on April 5, the second day of jury selection, when she asked would-be jurors if they could follow the law if picked to serve on the case and then dismissed 11 who said they could not.
Scherer acknowledged that she should have allowed attorneys for the defense and prosecution to question the prospective candidates about their answers before dismissing them. She initially ruled that she was starting jury selection over, but then reversed her decision after hearing an argument from the defense.
Scherer’s mistake prompted defense attorneys to file a motion accusing the court of committing double jeopardy and asking that the death penalty phase of the case be declared a mistrial and that Cruz be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In an attempt to remedy her error, Scherer is summoning back to court on Monday the 11 jurors she dismissed to be questioned and possibly be rehabilitated and added to a pool of more than 300 candidates.
For the initial phase of jury selection, questions should have been limited to whether the potential jurors had a hardship that prevented them from serving on the case, which is expected to last four to six months. More probing questions like the one the judge asked should have been reserved for the voir dire phase of jury selection, when prosecutors and defense attorneys are given the chance to grill jury candidates on their answers.
Twenty jurors, including eight alternates, will eventually be chosen to serve on the panel.
The jury selection process hit another snag last week when a potential juror disrupted the proceedings when he entered the courtroom and allegedly mouthed expletives and threats to Cruz, who was seated at the defense table. The outburst apparently inspired other would-be jurors in the courtroom to make similar threats to Cruz and prompted bailiffs to press Cruz against a wall to protect him.
Scherer described that particular group of jury candidates as “belligerent” and dismissed them all.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October to committing the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at the Parkland high school. During the hearing attended by loved ones of the 17 he killed, Cruz said he wished it was up to the survivors of the shooting to determine whether he lived or died.
“I’m very sorry for what I did,” Cruz said at his plea hearing. “I can’t live with myself sometimes.”
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