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Jury is chosen to decide Florida school shooter’s sentence

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A jury of seven men and five women was tentatively chosen Tuesday for a penalty trial to decide whether Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz should be sentenced to death or get life in prison for the 2018 attack, capping a nearly three-month winnowing process that began with 1,800 candidates.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys selected the jurors from a final 53-person pool. The three rounds that began on April 4, and went on for several hours, were over. There were many delays due to illness or other factors. Eight of the 10 alternates were chosen before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer adjourned late on Tuesday.

Wednesday will see the finalization of the jury. Both sides still have peremptory challenges that could change the main panel’s final makeup — the defense has two and the prosecution has six.

The jury will decide whether Cruz, 23, receives the death sentence or life in prison without parole for the murders of 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Opening statements, originally scheduled for May, will now be made on July 18.

Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 murders and attempted murder in October. The jury will decide his punishment. They must be unanimous for Cruz to get the death penalty — if at least one votes for life, that will be Cruz’s sentence.

Two bank executives and two technology workers are currently serving as jurors. A probation officer, a human resource professional, and a Walmart store stock manager are also part of the main panel. A librarian, a lawyer assistant, a retired executive in insurance, and a medical claims adjuster are all included. As alternates were being selected to replace a retired executive in the health care industry who was originally seated on this panel, the defense used a late peremptory question.

Gun owners are at least five of the current seated.

The panel will have a task never faced by a U.S. jury — no American mass shooter who killed at least 17 people has ever made it to trial. Nine other victims were killed in the shooting attacks or shortly afterwards, either by police officers or themselves. The trial of the suspect in 2019’s murder of 23 people in El Paso Walmart is underway.

The first phase of jury selection asked prospective panelists if their employment and personal circumstances would allow them the time to serve the trial. About 80% were eliminated because their employers wouldn’t pay them, they are self-employed, or they had school obligations or vacations planned.

The remaining 300 panelists were then asked to give their opinions on Cruz’s death penalty. A total of 85 people were interviewed about their lives and work histories. They were also asked if they could bear to see grisly crime scenes and autopsy photographs.

There were several instances when the selection process was disrupted. One day, the sheriff’s deputies who guard the courtroom thought some potential jurors were about to attack Cruz and pulled him to safety as they quickly removed the threatening panelists. Scherer had another day to dismiss potential jurors after one wore a T shirt that referenced the shooting that assisted the victims and survivors. The selection process was also delayed for two weeks after Melisa McNeill, lead defense attorney, contracted COVID-19.

Jurors will see graphic evidence, including crime scene photos, and tour the three-story classroom structure where Cruz stalked the halls, shooting at anyone who was in his path and into classrooms. It has not been cleaned since the shooting and remains bloodstained and bullet-pocked, with Valentine’s Day gifts strewn about.

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