FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The already slow jury selection in the criminal case against Florida school gunman Nikolas Cruz hit a new stumbling block Monday as a potential jury T-shirt honoring those killed and traumatized in the 2018 massacre the result was the dismissal of their entire group of 10.
The woman, a 58-year-old high school teacher, wore a t-shirt in the burgundy and silver colors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that read “Teacher Strong.” Among them were two hashtags that could be found on T-shirts and bumper stickers across South Florida long after filming began on February 14, 2018: #msdstrong and #NeverAgain.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 17 other people and injuring 17 others. The trial will decide whether he will be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
The woman had been brought into the courtroom separately from the other nine potential jurors because she had written on her questionnaire that her health prevented her from sitting for long periods of time.
After that was discussed, Melisa McNeill, Cruz’s lead public defender, asked her about her shirt and how much contact she had with the other jurors. The woman said she didn’t speak to the others but they all saw her shirt.
After the woman was asked to leave the courtroom briefly, McNeill told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that the entire group should be dismissed because the shirt could have biased others against him. Prosecutors agreed.
Scherer initially balked, saying she didn’t notice the T-shirt until McNeill brought it up and wondered if the other potential jurors had, too. But she eventually agreed after both sides warned that the T-shirt could become an issue on appeal if the jury sentenced Cruz to the death penalty. They argued it wasn’t worth the risk of having to retry the case years from now.
“She obviously did this to avoid jury duty. That was irresponsible,” said Scherer.
The woman declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press. The AP is not naming a potential jury in the case to protect its privacy.
The jury’s selection, which began seven weeks ago, is now in its second phase. During the first, prospective jurors were simply asked if they could serve from late June through September, the planned length of the trial. This process had a two-week delay after McNeill suffered from an undisclosed illness. About 400 of nearly 1,900 said they could serve and are now being interviewed as part of Phase 2.
These would-be jurors, in groups of about 10, are asked their opinion on the death penalty and whether they can put aside their knowledge of the shooting and be fair. To pass, they must say they could consider either alternative — death or life in prison — for Cruz.
Including the group released Monday, 26 out of 80 potential jurors who underwent the second screening passed. Scherer hopes 150 more will be eligible for the third phase, when they will be asked more questions and then reduced to 12 jurors and eight alternates. Both sides can try to persuade Scherer to dismiss a jury as unfair to their case. Each side will also have at least 10 mandatory challenges that allow them to dismiss a jury for any reason other than race or gender.
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