Final jury selection begins in Florida school massacre trial
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table during jury selection in the penalty phase of Cruz's trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (AP) — The final phase in the selection of 12 jurors who will decide whether Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz should receive the death sentence got underway Tuesday, the conclusion of a nearly three-month effort that began with 1,800 candidates.

The dozen jurors and eight alternates will be winnowed down from 53 candidates by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Each side can try to persuade Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that a particular candidate is biased. If she disagrees, each side also will have at least 10 peremptory challenges where they can eliminate candidates for any reason except race or gender.

The jury will decide whether Cruz, 23, receives the death sentence or life in prison without parole for the murders of 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. Cruz pleaded guilty in October to those murders and 17 counts of attempted murder, so the jurors will only decide his punishment.

They must be unanimous for Cruz to get the death penalty — if at least one votes for life, that will be Cruz’s sentence.

The panel will have a task never faced by a US jury — no American mass shooter who killed at least 17 people has ever made it to trial. Nine others died during or immediately after their shooting attacks, killed either by police or themselves. The suspect in the 2019 slaying of 23 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, is awaiting trial.

The jurors will be exposed to graphic evidence, including crime scene and autopsy photos and tour the three-story classroom building where Cruz methodically stalked the halls, shooting at anyone in front of him and into classrooms. It has not been cleaned since the shooting and remains bloodstained and bullet-pocked, with Valentine’s Day gifts strewn about.

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