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Parkland gunman's defense team seeks delay following recent mass shootings

Jury selection resumes after 10-day hiatus
Judge Elizabeth Scherer, June 6, 2022
Posted at 11:32 AM, Jun 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-06 17:16:57-04

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jury selection in the sentencing phase for the Parkland gunman was back in court Monday for the first time this month.

The case has been on a 10-day hiatus and faced a variety of setbacks since early April.

Nikolas Cruz's defense team now wants the jury selection put on hold indefinitely, arguing "the wave of emotion surrounding the recent mass shootings" creates "bias and prejudice against him."

RELATED: Parkland School Shooting

This comes after a Friday court filing.

Read the court filing below:

The gunman's defense team said the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has "reopened old wounds" in Parkland and triggered protests against gun violence, according to the filing.

"To make any attempt to conduct a fair, constitutional trial in the wake of the Uvalde and Buffalo tragedies would be futile," the defense team's filing says.

The defense said they want to only proceed with asking jurors about hardship because death penalty attorney Casey Secor was not present in court Monday.

Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill with Nikolas Cruz, June 6, 2022
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill argues for a continuance due to an ill member of the legal team during jury 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 on Monday, June 6, 2022. Cruz previously plead guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer and Cruz's lead attorney, Melisa McNeill, heatedly argued Monday over the judge's insistence that jury selection move forward without the presence of Secor, a South Carolina death penalty defense specialist who is assisting McNeill.

Scherer said Secor, who has COVID-19, could watch the proceedings on a video link and communicate with McNeill by phone or text message.

The defense team said they would only proceed with hardship and nothing more.

Scherer said the defense team is "threatening" her judgment and asked if the defense is "waiving their right to appeal."

The judge accused McNeill of trying to intentionally provide ineffectual counsel to Cruz by saying her team would not participate without Secor.

Assistant State Attorneys Jeff Marcus, left, and Carolyn McCann, speak with Mitch Dworet, center, and Tom and Gena Hoyer a break in jury 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 on Monday, June 6, 2022.
Assistant State Attorneys Jeff Marcus, left, and Carolyn McCann, speak with Mitch Dworet, center, and Tom and Gena Hoyer a break in jury 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 on Monday, June 6, 2022. The Hoyer’s son, Luke, and the Dworet’s son, Nicholas, were killed, and the Dworet’s other son, Alexander, was injured in the 2018 shootings. Cruz previously plead guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings.

At one point, Scherer recessed the hearing, telling McNeill to consult the Florida Bar over what sanctions she might face if she and her team refused to participate. She said four attorneys present for Cruz in the courtroom was enough.

"We are moving forward," Scherer said.

But McNeill told the judge she was the one creating grounds for a successful appeal of ineffectual defense counsel by insisting that jury selection move forward without Secor, who McNeill said has special expertise in that area.

McNeill said that more than half of successful death penalty appeals are over issues that arise during jury selection. If Cruz is sentenced to death, a successful appeal would result in a retrial several years from now.

"These (victims') families do not need to be coming back to this courtroom," McNeill said.

She also said Scherer's threat to sanction her created a conflict between her obligation to provide Cruz with the best defense possible and her obligation to her career and family not to endanger her law license.

Prosecutors found themselves in the middle. They originally agreed with the defense to delay the jury selection until Secor returned, but then told the judge she would be on solid legal ground if she decided to move forward without Secor.

Scherer then adjourned court until later Monday afternoon.

Prosecutors believe this is part of the defense strategy to delay the case, but Cruz's team said this is not a strategy because the delays with their team are related to medical issues.

State attorneys reiterated that they have not had any medical issues and wanted to make it clear after the judge mistakenly said "both sides have had medical issues."

A Parkland family member in attendance nodded their head in agreement when prosecutors spoke about this being a "strategy" of the defense.

By the end of the day, 28 potential jurors were brought in but only asked if they had a hardship preventing them from sitting through four to five months of testimony.

An original pool of about 1,800 potential jurors has been whittled down to about 300 with the process in Phase 2 of 3.

After being simply asked during Phase 1 whether their jobs and lives would allow them to serve for four months, the potential jurors are now being asked in Phase 2 their opinions on the death penalty and whether they can be fair to Cruz.

Phase 3, whenever that begins, would involve individualized questioning. Scherer is hoping to have 150 potential jurors for that phase, but right now only 35 have advanced out of Phase 2 with about 80 having been rejected.

Cruz, 23, has already pleaded guilty to killing 17 people during the 2018 rampage.

The 12 jurors selected will have to decide whether Cruz will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole for killing seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Portions of this article courtesy of the Associated Press