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What is 'stake-out' question attorneys argued about during jury selection in Nikolas Cruz sentencing trial?

Defense attorney for Parkland school shooter objects to prosecution's 'stake-out' claims
Posted at 10:40 PM, Jun 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 22:40:28-04

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The sentencing trial for convicted Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz resumed again Tuesday after a nearly two-week pause.

On Tuesday, additional groups of prospective jurors were asked a stringent list of questions.

Attorneys are working to determine whether jurors can remain fair and impartial as they decide whether Cruz should face the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Nikolas Cruz at defense table during jury selection in penalty phase of murder trial, June 21, 2022
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table during jury selection in the penalty phase of his murder trial Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

At one point, prosecutors objected to what they deemed as a "stake-out" question from defense attorney Melisa McNeill.

"Let's talk about what would be important for you to know about information you would like to have in making a decision about whether or not another human being lives or dies," McNeill asked prospective jurors. "What matters to you?"

The objection by prosecutors prompted the court reporter to read back McNeill's words aloud.

Defense attorney Melisa McNeill speaks with Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus during jury selection in penalty phase of Nikolas Cruz murder trial, June 21, 2022
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill speaks with Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus prior to the start of the day’s jury selection in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A stake-out question, also known as a hypothetical question, essentially asks jurors to pre-commit to a way of voting before evidence is presented. Prosecutors worry it could sway the jury pool.

"By definition, it's not a stake-out question because I'm not giving them a certain fact and then asking them how they would vote in response to that," McNeill said. "That's the definition of a stake out."

The Supreme Court has described the "stake-out" question as an impermissible attempt to elicit in advance what a juror's position would be under a certain state of the evidence or on a given state of facts.

Jury selection was scheduled to continue Wednesday.