Jury selection began Monday in the Nikolas Cruz death-penalty trial, and many in the first group of potential jurors told the judge that serving at least four months would strain their livelihoods.
One man, a self-employed business coach, said he’d have to shut down his entire business. Another man told the judge he toils at two jobs, with Fed-Ex and as a chef at night, just to pay his mortgage.
One potential juror, a Cheesecake Factory server, joked he’d give the judge some cheesecake. Amid the laughter, the fear of missing out on wages and tips was a familiar one. “I’m not going into debt,” he said.
Said one real-estate broker and financial analyst: “I’m only as good as my last job and if I’m available to take the call.”
In all, just 18 potential jurors —out of the first group of 60 — were asked to fill out questionnaires about themselves, to gauge a possible return for the next round of the selection process.
Selecting a jury is tedious and difficult in any lengthy criminal case, let alone one for the worst school shooting in Florida history. And Monday morning foreshadowed what figures to be a long slog in selecting a jury for Cruz, who methodically killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018.
The massacre sparked a wave of student activism and led to the passage of a gun-control law. In October, Cruz pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder, setting the stage for the “penalty phase” trial that is expected to last at least through September.
The 12-person jury will only be deciding whether Cruz is sentenced to death by execution, or life in prison.
Prosecutors hope to prove the crime was so cruel and calculated that Cruz, 23, deserves the ultimate punishment, while defense lawyers hope to show his tumultuous upbringing and mental health woes should spare him death.
Testimony is expected to begin on May 31, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer told the prospective jurors.
She did not question them about their views on the death penalty, what they know about the case or the extensive publicity surrounding the school shooting, all of which could affect whether they can serve fairly. That’ll come in subsequent weeks.
“Although you may be familiar with this case, you will not be excused merely for that reason alone,” she said.
Instead, Scherer asked possible jurors about extreme inconveniences and hardships that make it too difficult to serve for such a long trial.
Just after 11 a.m., the first pool of 60 potential jurors filed into the cavernous 17th-floor courtroom, taking up the jury box and a large section of seats in the gallery. Cruz, with no handcuffs and wearing an olive green sweater, sat flanked by his lawyers. Well away from the lawyers’ tables, a row of relatives of victims watched, behind them a few rows of reporters.
With the trial falling during the summer, many prospective jurors pointed to pre-planned vacations that might take long chunks of their time. Others worried how jury selection would affect others in their family — one man has a wife who is 37 weeks pregnant, several others were key caregivers for grandchildren or ailing relatives.
Still others fretted that even if their jobs continued to pay them, their focus might not always be on the trial. One 6th grade teacher noted that the trial would interrupt the start of the fall school year. A hyperbaric oxygen therapy operator who works in Miami said he was the only one could run the chamber.
“I won’t be available for my patients. That would be a problem,” one doctor told the judge.
Very little was said about Cruz or the case — although one piano instructor, while noting scheduling conflicts with her job, volunteered a view on sentencing. “I don’t believe in one punishment,” she said, without specifying if it was the death penalty. “I don’t believe it would be appropriate.”
She was excused.