© 2022 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lawyers for Parkland shooter say Texas school shooting will affect jurors

(Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)
The Associated Press
Judge Elizabeth Scherer speaks with, from left; assistant state attorney Carolyn McCann, and assistant public defenders Tamara Curtis and Melisa McNeill during a break in jury pre-selection in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Cruz is facing a possible death sentence for murdering 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland four years earlier.

Lawyers in the penalty trial of Parkland school shooter argued over whether they could ask jurors about their feelings towards yesterday’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.

Attorneys for Nikolas Cruz clashed with prosecutors, saying they should be allowed to ask potential jurors directly about their knowledge and feelings about the Uvalde, Texas, shootings that left 19 students and two teachers dead on Tuesday. The 18-year-old shooter also died.

“The community can unfortunately identify with what’s going on in Texas,” said McNeill, who stopped several times to keep herself from crying. The lawyers need to find out “if these jurors believe they are in a position to sit in a case like this. We can’t ignore this.”

Tom Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke died in the Parkland shooting, stood outside the courtroom Wednesday, his voice breaking and knees shaking at he talked about the Texas killings. He said he was in physical pain thinking about what the victims’ parents experienced.

“I know what those families had to endure sitting in a room waiting to hear that their child is laying in a school on a floor. It is heartbreaking, heartbreaking,” said Hoyer, who frequently attends jury selection with his wife and the parents of another victim. “I hope their journey through all of this is a lot faster than ours.”

Judge Elizabeth Scherer ruled that McNeill and her team could ask potential jurors general questions about their feelings on school shootings and the murder of children and whether they could still be fair, but not specifically about Texas.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 17 and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

A jury is being selected to decide whether the former Stoneman Douglas student is sentenced to death or life in prison without parole — a process that has slogged on for almost two months and has at least a month to go before an expected four-month trial. The lawyers have questioned 1,900 potential jurors, slimming the group down to about 300 as they seek 12 panelists and eight alternates through a three-stage interview process.

Carolyn McCann, a state prosecutor, argued that Cruz’s case must be kept separate from other school shootings and that Texas should not be mentioned.

She pointed out that 27 other school shootings have happened in the U.S. just this year — more than one per week. Even when McCann originally erred and repeatedly said there had been 127 school shootings, no one questioned it.

“There's been 27 school shootings this year, there's going to be more unfortunately. The defendant is not special. He's not unique. He's not extraordinary. And unfortunately, and very sadly, this is a crime that has happened before, and it will happen again. And we cannot break and keep editing the questions and tailoring them every time. Something terrible and unbelievable happens,” she told Judge Elizabeth Scherer.

The Texas shootings were even brought up unprompted by a potential juror — “We all know what happened yesterday” — drawing nods from many of the other 12 prospects in her group.

Cruz’s trial, which is now the fifth-deadliest U.S. school shooting, continues next week.

Lawyers interviewed 13 potential jurors Wednesday. Eight will return next month for the third and final phase of jury selection. So far, 35 potential jurors are cleared for phase three, meaning they are able to sit on a jury for about four months and did not express views on the death penalty that disqualify them from service.

This story used details reported by the Associated Press.