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Law professor explains difficulty in picking jury for Parkland shooting trial

Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann, left, speaks with Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone during a hearing in preparation for the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse.
Amy Beth Bennett
South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP Pool
Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann, left, speaks with Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone during a hearing in preparation for the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, March 29, 2022. Cruz previously plead guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings.

Jury selection has been delayed multiple times in the death penalty trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz. Opening arguments are scheduled to start in June and the sentencing trial is expected to last into October.

Craig Trocino runs the University of Miami’s Law Innocence Clinic, which works to identify and exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Florida. He has decades of experience in the state and federal court system. He discussed the complications of jury selection with WLRN's Broward County reporter Gerard Albert III, who has been covering the trial.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: The Judge started the jury selection process over again, because 11 jurors were improperly dismissed after saying they had an issue with the death penalty. Lawyers argued that they should have had a chance to rehabilitate those jurors. What does that mean?

CRAIG TROCINO: Defense and the prosecution generally have an opportunity to question them. So if they say something that might be disqualifying, then you can inquire and make sure that's what they really meant. So that's what the defense meant by that. It was improper for the judge to have to just wholesale dismissed them on that, on that account.

WLRN: How difficult is it going to be to get a large enough pool of jurors that can serve for four months?

TROCINO: It's going to be incredibly difficult, especially in this case, it's going to be difficult for several reasons. One, to find jurors who are available for the four-month period. Two, to have a juror who can sit for four months, and hasn't formed any preconceived notions of this trial based on all the pre-trial publicity.

WLRN: The first round of jury selection has been about scheduling and financial hardships. What types of questions will the jurors who make it past that first round be asked?

TROCINO: They're going to be asked their positions on the death penalty. The jurors have to be what they call "death qualified" — they have to acknowledge that they would be willing to follow the law, in particularly would be willing to vote for in favor of the death penalty if the state proves their case. The corollary of that, however, is not true. If someone says I can follow the law, but I disagree with the death penalty, they're excluded. So this jury is going to already when they get under the law, death qualified, they're going to be by definition, biased towards the death penalty.

WLRN: The judge tells every pool of jurors that prior knowledge of the case will not disqualify them from being on the jury. With a case that's so notorious, what are some of the challenges of getting a fair jury?

TROCINO: It's always a challenge to get a fair jury, it's especially a challenge to get a fair jury in a case that has this much press and notoriety. There's a lot of charged emotions behind this case. But one of the things that we have to keep in mind, the constitutional safeguards that are in place, must be scrupulously honored for Mr. Cruz, because if they're not honored for Mr. Cruz, they're not going to be honored for the run of the mill person who's going to trial.

WLRN: So this jury will have to decide whether the shooter lives or dies. How does the possibility of a death penalty sentence complicate things?

TROCINO: Famously, it's been said with regard to death penalty cases that death is different. And that's true, it is different, it changes the quantum of everything that happens from the beginning of the case to the end. No matter what happens in this trial, Mr. Cruz does not leave prison alive. The only question is when he's going to die, and by whose hand will he die?

WLRN: Can you tell me what type of jury the state is looking for in this trial?

TROCINO: The state's going to want a jury who would be in favor of ruling for the death penalty. And the defense is going to want quite the opposite. If somebody, one of the jurors, says I disagree with the death penalty under all circumstances that are going to be stricken for cause. All the jurors are going to have to say, if the case is proven, I will vote for death.

When we get to the selection part of it, let's say I have, you know, these five jurors are my ideal jurors. Pretty soon the state's going to figure that out. And they're going to peremptorily strike those jurors. And I'm going to do the same to them. So several of my ideal jurors are gone, several of their ideal jurors are gone. And then we hopefully get to a place where there's a good blending of people on the jury.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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