Jury can tour Parkland, Florida school where shooter killed 17, judge rules

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More than four years after killing 17 people at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Nikolas Cruz’s fate will be in the hands of a Florida jury.

The jury will decide whether the Florida school shooter will get a death sentence or life in prison for murdering 17 people and wounding 17 others, a judge has ruled. 

The former student pled guilty to all charges. It is the deadliest U.S. mass shooting ever to be tried.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer rejected a defense argument that a jury tour of the three-story building at the high school is not necessary because there are videos and photos of the crime scene and would only serve to inflame the jurors’ passions.

Cruz’s lawyers said the tour was of the site was “highly prejudicial” and particularly unnecessary since he pleaded guilty in October, and the jury will not have to decide whether he committed the murders, only whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole.

But Judge Scherer disagreed. 

“This Court finds that its probative value is not substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect,” Scherer said in denying the order.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer is shown during 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, Florida, on Monday, April 4, 2022.
(Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

“The Court finds that a jury view of the crime scene remains useful and proper, even in light of the current posture of the case,” Scherer wrote in a ruling posted Monday. “The purpose of a jury view is to assist the jury in analyzing and applying the evidence presented at trial.”

Prosecutors want jurors to see the path Cruz, 23, took through the building on Feb. 14, 2018, to understand the carnage he unleashed as he walked methodically floor-to-floor, firing his semi-automatic rifle as he went. Shortly after the shooting, the building was fenced off and sealed — the dried blood, Valentine’s Day gifts and bullet holes still in place.

Graphic gives details of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Approximately 1,500 potential jurors will be screened over the next weeks as the pool is pared down to 12 plus eight alternates in a three-step selections process is expected to last two months, followed by a four-month trial.

To get the death penalty, the jury must unanimously agree that aggravating factors such as the number of people he killed, his planning and his cruelty outweigh such mitigating factors as his lifelong mental illness and the death of his parents.

If any juror disagrees, Cruz will receive a life sentence.

Chief Assistant Public Defender David Wheeler is shown at the defense table with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz during jury pre-selection in the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, April 4, 2022.

Earlier Tuesday afternoon, the court began the first round of gathering jurors. The defense raised concerns about a possible procedural misstep. 

The judge asked a group of potential jurors in court if they could or could now follow the law, however this question is supposed to be asked in phase two rather than in phase one of the selection process.

Since the case is only in phase one of jury selection, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has been limiting questions to only if potential jurors had hardships for serving on a jury for several months. Hardships include, having a vacation, wedding plans, a job issue or family problems.

The court is now in recess and will restart on Wednesday morning to further discuss the possibility of a mistrial.

Juries don’t typically tour crime scenes, but either side can request it if it believes a visit would help the members better understand the case. It is up to the judge to decide if they visit.

The building, which rises above the Stoneman Douglas campus, has been a grim, daily reminder of the shooting for students, staff and parents. The Broward County school district plans to demolish it after the trial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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