FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami/AP) - Hearings are being held Wednesday and Thursday before the start of the penalty phase for confessed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gunman Nikolas Cruz.
During the hearings, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will address the remaining issues ahead of jury selection for the penalty phase of the case.
The hearings are held in the courtroom where the penalty phase trial will take place.
During Wednesday's hearing, attorneys for Cruz and prosecutors argued over whether the jurors who will decide whether he is sentenced to death should be allowed to tour the blood-stained, bullet-pocked classroom building where he went on his murderous shooting spree four years ago.
Prosecutors told Judge Scherer that the jurors need to see the path Cruz, 23, took through the three-story building on the school's campus 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 on February 14th, 2018, the building was fenced off and sealed — the dried blood, Valentine's Day gifts and bullet holes still in place.
Cruz's attorneys argued that the jurors will already see extensive and gruesome security video of the shooting, crime scene video and photos taken immediately after the shooting and hear testimony about the building. They said the prosecution's only desire is to inflame the jurors' passions and get them to vote with their emotions, not their intellect.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.
Jury selection for the penalty phase is set to begin next week on Monday, April 4th, and run through Wednesday, April 6th. A second session will be held April 11-13, then a week off, and it resumes on April 25th.
Attorneys are planning to qualify 20 jurors.
Once they seat the jury the trial itself will begin. That date is determined by how long jury selection takes.
Potential jurors will be told the penalty phase will take four to six months and includes April in the timeline.
Judge Scherer previously ruled that jurors could tour the building, but that was before Cruz's guilty plea. The defense said the plea eliminated the need to tour the building because prosecutors no longer had to prove his guilt.
The jury will decide whether he is sentenced to death or to life in prison without parole.
At issue is whether the aggravating factors of the killings — the multiple deaths, the planning, the cruelty — outweigh mitigating factors such as Cruz's lifelong mental and emotional problems and the death of his parents.
For Cruz to be sentenced to death, the 12-member jury must unanimously agree. If one disagrees, he will receive a life sentence.
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.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz's lead public defender, told Scherer that the building is no longer an accurate representation of what happened because the Broward Sheriff's Office removed personal items without fully logging and photographing them. She gave the court a video her office produced that would show what Cruz saw as he walked the halls, but removes all the blood, Valentine's gifts and other crime scene material. She said showing the jurors that would be a better alternative.
"If the purpose of running the jury to the crime scene is so that they can view the area Mr. Cruz walked, the path that he took, that can be done with a sanitized crime scene, if that is truly their (the prosecution's) intention," McNeill said. The jurors "don't need to see all of the horrible things."
But assistant prosecutor Carolyn McCann told Scherer that no evidence can replace seeing "the carnage" left behind in the school building. Cruz chose to shoot people in the building, she said. He chose to carry out his attack on Valentine's Day. If a tour of the building evokes strong emotions, it was Cruz's own doing, she argued.
"There is no one video, photograph, poster, film, anything, that captures what the ... building is," McCann said. "The jury has to know the footsteps, the distance, the perspective, the visual acuity the defendant had to have."
Scherer said she would rule soon.
(© Copyright 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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