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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.
The first group of 60 prospective jurors filed into Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer’s courtroom for what is expected to be a two-month process to pick 12 panelists plus eight alternates.
Court officials say 1,500 candidates or more could be brought before Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz’s public defenders for initial screening.
Cruz, 23, sat between his attorneys, wearing a sweater and an a face mask, four sheriff’s deputies sitting nearby.
Shooter Nikolas Cruz arrives in court wearing a face mask on Monday as jury selection begins
Cruz speaks with Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill prior to the start of jury selection
He spoke briefly, waiving his right to participate directly in the screening process. He pleaded guilty in October to the February 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.
Eight parents and other family members of some victims sat together in the courtroom.
The prospective jurors are being asked if they can put aside any animosity toward Cruz and judge the case fairly. They will then be asked if they are available from June through September. Out of each group of 60, Scherer is hoping an average of five remain.
Candidates who pass those hurdles are being taken into another room to fill out a questionnaire on their backgrounds and beliefs for the lawyers to later review.
They will be brought back in several weeks later for individual questioning. To qualify for the jury, they must say they can vote for the death penalty if the evidence supports that verdict, but also don´t believe it should be mandatory for murder.
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.
The parents and spouses of victims who have spoken publicly said they are in favor of Cruz’s execution
Students are seen being evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018
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.’
Cruz is pictured after being caught on February 14, 2018 after killing 17 people
Surveillance video captured Cruz stalking the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, aged 19
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.
The Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
On February 14, 2018, when then-19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, 17 people were killed, including three teachers.
Alyssa Alhadeff, 14
Alyssa was a soccer player for Parkland Travel Soccer
Scott Beigel, 35
Biegel was a geography teacher who was killed as he tried to direct students back to his classroom when the shooting broke out
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14
Martin’s brother Miguel wrote on a GoFundMe page for his brother’s funeral expenses: ‘He was a very funny kid, outgoing, and sometimes really quiet’
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Nicholas was a senior when he was killed. He had already been recruited onto the swim team at the University of Indianapolis
Aaron Feis, 37
Feis was shot and killed after throwing himself in front of students to protect them from bullets. He died from his gunshot wounds after being rushed to the hospital and undergoing emergency surgery
Jamie Guttenberg, 14
Jamie’s father confirmed her death in a Facebook post that read: ‘My heart is broken. Yesterday, Jennifer Bloom Guttenberg and I lost our baby girl to a violent shooting at her school…I write this trying to figure out how my family gets through this’
Chris Hixon, 49
Hixon was the school’s athletic director and his wife told CNN that he was ‘an awesome husband, father and American’. Hixon was a Naval reservist and did a tour in Iraq in 2007
Luke Hoyer, 15
Luke’s cousin told the local news station that he was ‘an amazing individual. Always happy, always smiling. His smile was contagious, and so was his laugh’
Cara Loughran, 14
Cara was an Irish dancer at a local dance studio, which posted on Facebook: ‘Cara was a beautiful soul and always had a smile on her face’
Gina Montalto, 14
Gina was a member of the school’s marching band as a winter guard. Her instructor said she ‘was the sweetest soul ever’
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Joaquin was born in Venezuela and moved to the US when he was three. He became a natural citizen one year before the shooting
Alaina Petty, 14
Alaina was part of the school’s junior ROTC program – a leadership program taught by Army veterans
Meadow Pollack, 18
Meadow was a senior and had been accepted to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, at the time of her death
Helena Ramsay, 17
Helena was planning to attend college in 2019. Her cousin wrote in a tribute: ‘We miss you dearly and are so incredibly sorry that your life was cut short’
Alex Schachter, 14
Alex was a member of the high school’s marching band and orchestra where he played baritone and trombone. After his death his family set up a GoFundMe page to act as a scholarship fund in his memory
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Carmen was a National Merit Scholar semifinalist, which only 10 students had qualified for in 2018
Peter Wang, 15
Peter was a member of the school’s junior ROTC program and was reportedly looking forward to the Chinese New Year, which was two days after the massacre
(L-R) Carmen Schentrup, 16; Peter Wang, 15
Source: Daily Mail