More than four years after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland killed 17 people and injured 17 more, the procedure to determine whether the gunman will receive the death penalty or life in prison is set to begin.
Monday's beginning of the penalty phase will start the process of finding the 12 jurors who could recommend Nikolas Cruz be given a death sentence, which some surviving loved ones say means justice.
In October 2021, Cruz entered guilty pleas to 17 counts of first-degree murder after killed 14 students and three staff members. Monday, Judge Elizabeth Scherer will begin looking for 12 Broward residents who will give her their recommendation if Cruz should get life without parole or the death penalty.
"There’s been a lot of planning going on both sides here, prosecution and defense,” said attorney Phil Reizenstein, an expert in death penalty cases.
Making this case different is the gigantic jury pool that's needed since everyone knows about the tragedy. The size also reduces the chances of the case having to move to another county in the state.
Jurors will be asked if they can set actually aside what they’ve seen in the media, and whether they could impose the death penalty.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys can strike a potential juror if they are able to persuade Scherer that the person's background or answers demonstrates unfairness. Cruz’s attorneys might challenge school employees, for example, or someone with a relative who died at the hands of another.
Both sides receive 10 peremptory strikes for any reason except race or gender. Scherer has indicated she might add more, given the case's high profile.
Jury candidates who declare that they can be objective will complete a questionnaire that dives into their backgrounds and asks whether they can handle viewing graphic evidence. They will then return in a few weeks for courtroom interviews, where they must declare that they are able to vote for the death penalty but also don't believe it should be mandatory for murder.
"I think it’s a fair guess that the prosecution is going to be very happy with any juror who is a parent because I am a parent and I don’t know how you sit in judgement on this case and don’t put yourself in the shoes of these parents who’ve lost children," Reizenstein said.
Even though Cruz entered the guilty pleas, which normally results in those convicted avoiding death, the Broward State Attorney vowed to never take the death penalty off the table.
That means prosecutors now will have to prove at least one of what are called "aggravating factors," the most obvious in the tragedy being that multiple people were killed.
Cruz’s attorneys “should not even try to get a jury or juror who doesn’t know about the case because that is ignorance; you would have to be living under a rock,” said Orlando defense attorney Mark O’Mara.
O'Mara came to national prominence after his successful 2013 defense of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of murdering Black teenager Trayvon Martin. He is not involved in the Cruz case.
To get at least one “no” vote, Cruz's attorneys must show that his path to the murders wasn't "pure 100% personal-created intent,” said O'Mara, who has defended about a dozen capital cases that ended with no death sentences imposed. “It is going to be difficult. ... Death is the default sentence in this case.”
This won't be the first time Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz's attorneys begin picking a jury for him. In October, Cruz faced trial for assaulting a jail guard nine months after the shooting. Prosecutors wanted a conviction to use as an aggravating factor in their argument for the death penalty.
Almost 300 prospective jurors were screened, 10 times what is typical in a Florida assault case. About half said they couldn't judge Cruz fairly, and three women cried just seeing him. The other half said they could be just, but the process ended with Cruz's sudden guilty plea.