Judge in Nikolas Cruz sentencing reverses course on jury selection in Parkland high school shooting case

Originally Published: 27 APR 22 21:07 ET
Updated: 28 APR 22 07:06 ET

    (CNN) -- The judge in the sentencing of the shooter who pleaded guilty to killing 17 people in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reversed course Wednesday, opting against starting over in selecting the jury that will decide whether Nikolas Cruz gets the death penalty or life in prison.

The back-and-forth followed an outburst Tuesday by prospective jurors inside the courtroom that separately led to more dismissals after bailiffs restrained Cruz against a wall to protect him from people "making a threat," Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer told Cruz's attorney.

A potential juror was "mouthing expletives" at Cruz, prompting other jurors to become "belligerent," said Scherer, who dismissed the rest of the prospective jurors who were in the room for the incident.

The judge on Monday had said she would restart jury selection after the prosecution requested it because Scherer had excused 11 prospective jurors who said -- before attorneys for both sides got to question them -- they could not follow the law.

"A mistake was made," Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann said Monday, calling the situation "a miscommunication," and filed a motion asking the judge to strike the jury panels. "There's too many issues at this point. It's better to just start fresh."

Scherer initially granted the prosecution's request. "I'm going to start over," she said Monday. "As soon as the panel comes up, I'm granting the motion. We're going to start over."

Scherer, however, added a caveat: She would allow the defense to argue on Wednesday why they shouldn't start over -- and that argument prevailed, as the judge said that she instead would bring those 11 prospective jurors back Monday for more questioning rather than starting over entirely.

Jury selection for the penalty phase of Cruz's trial began April 4. The jury now being impaneled will be tasked with deciding whether to recommend the death penalty for Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the shooting.

Jury selection is further complicated by the fact that proceedings are expected to be especially lengthy. Both sides told Scherer the penalty phase could last four to six months.

Jurors are expected to hear aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances -- reasons why Cruz should or should not be put to death. If the jury unanimously finds at least one aggravating factor exists in the case, it must then be unanimous in recommending the death penalty. Cruz's sentence would otherwise default to life in prison.

If the jury recommends the death penalty, the judge could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life in prison.

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