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The jury search for the Parkland shooter is reopened amid dispute

After prosecutors and defense lawyers argued that she made a mistake when she did not question 11 potential jurors who said they would not comply with the law before she dismissed them, the judge in charge of jury selection for the man who killed 17 people at a Florida high-school declared that the process would restart Monday.

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The jury search for the Parkland shooter is reopened amid dispute

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer granted the motion of Nikolas Claus's prosecutors, over strong objections from his attorneys. She nullified two weeks work by defense and prosecution lawyers, forcing them all to start the whole process on Monday.

Nearly 250 potential jurors, who had stated they could attend a four-month trial, will not be called back next year for further questioning. This is because Cruz, who pleaded guilty to killing 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Doug High School on February 14, 2018, has been unable to judge fair. Over 1,200 candidates were screened.

After a two-month process of winnowing, the 12-member jury will decide whether Cruz, 23 years old will be sentenced to death or life without parole. Opening statements will be delayed from June 14 to 21 by the restart. These had been delayed since May 31.

Carolyn McCann, the prosecutor, made her argument after 11 jurors were wrongly dismissed by Scherer 2 weeks ago. They weren't informed to return to court Monday for further questioning -- as was planned -- because of a miscommunication.

McCann claimed that Scherer promised they would be in next week. However, McCann said it would waste more time if potential jurors were not struck. She stated that the prosecution is entitled to question potential jurors as well as to a neutral final panel.

"Neither side was able to speak to these jurors. It is crucial to question jurors in a capital case. McCann stated that it is crucial. This is not an innocent error.

Melisa McNeill was Cruz's public defender and said that Scherer should wait to next week to see whether the 11 jurors return. If they do, then Scherer could be questioned.

McNeill stated, "We believe that you are committing even more error" in dismissing potential jurors right now.

Scherer supported the prosecution but allowed the defense to conduct research until Wednesday in an attempt to change her mind.

Both sides were told by Scherer that they believe she made a grave error in not questioning the 11 jurors. She disagrees. To move the case forward, she said that she was simply deferring their opinions.

Since April 5, after Scherer's questioning a group 60 potential jurors, there has been the possibility of having to start over. This was the fifth panel of 21 that were screened prior to Monday.

Scherer asked each group if potential jurors were experiencing hardships that would prevent them from serving between June and September. She also asked the fifth group if they would follow the law if selected. Eleven hands went up.

They were dismissed by Scherer without further questioning. Cruz's lawyers raised an objection. They wanted to be sure that they weren't just trying to avoid jury service. Florida jury candidates must be questioned before being dismissed.

Scherer attempted to have jurors return, but none of them had been returned. She claimed that the Broward County Sheriff's Office would send summonses to them. However, this was not accomplished for unknown reasons. Even if they all responded, it is possible that they were disqualified as they did not receive the Scherer order to the other potential jurors not to discuss or read about this case.

Attorneys were told the next day by Scherer, "I will never make that error again."

David Weinstein, a Miami defense lawyer and ex-prosecutor, stated Monday that the prosecution is correct to some extent. They, their victims, and their next-of-kin have the right to a fair trial. However, that right cannot override the rights of criminal defendants.

He stated that the state wants to avoid a penalty phase that was tainted at an early stage. He said that Cruz could be sentenced to death and it could lead to the appeal being dismissed. "From their point of view, the judge could wipe the slate clean and begin over."

He said that the defense would argue on appeal that Cruz is being placed under double jeopardy by restarting over their objection and therefore cannot be sentenced for death.

Robert Jarvis, Nova Southeastern University's law professor, stated that the prosecution is correct and that a restart was necessary. He said that the dispute was "another error made by a judge who's in over her heads." This is Scherer’s first capital case.

Jurors will determine whether aggravating factors, Cruz's multiple deaths, Cruz’s planning, and Cruz's cruelty, outweigh mitigating elements such as the defendant’s mental and emotional issues, possible sexual abuse, and the death of his parents.

Cruz can only be executed if the jury votes unanimously in favor of the death penalty. He will be sentenced to death without parole if he is opposed by more than one member of the jury.

Due to Cruz's fame and the hatred that many feel for him, it is likely that finding fair jurors will prove difficult. Four-month-long jurors must complete questionnaires regarding their background and beliefs about the death penalty. Both sides are asked for their answers, and prospects are then brought back within weeks to continue questioning.

The sides can then try to "rehabilitate” jurors they feel might be favorably for their side. Jurors who oppose the death penalty morally would be dismissed by the prosecution. However, the defense can ask them if they would vote in favor of the death penalty if it was required by law. The judge may allow the juror to be seated if they are convinced they can.


 

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