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Jury selection begins for Parkland gunman who killed 17 people

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jury selection began today in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This is for the gunman who killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Nikolas Cruz has already pleaded guilty to all charges. The jury will decide what sentence he will receive - life in prison or the death penalty.

NPR's Greg Allen is at the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale and joins us now. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just tell us so far, how is jury selection going? Is it likely to be a pretty long process here?

ALLEN: It does look that way. The judge says jury selection will continue through the end of next month. Acceding an impartial jury here in the county where the shooting occurred is looking like it's going to be a challenge. The judge said today the arguments will begin - will actually begin at the end of May, and the trial will continue through September.

Many jurors today who were being questioned were - cited vacations, weddings, jobs, child-care responsibilities as reasons why they wouldn't be able to serve. One juror said she had met Nikolas Cruz, and she was questioned extensively by the judge before she was dismissed. But once a large enough pool of prospective jurors are identified, it'll be - they'll be brought back, and lawyers from both sides will question them individually. So it's going to be a very long and slow process here.

CHANG: OK. And as we mentioned, Greg, Cruz has already changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. Was that change in his plea a surprise?

ALLEN: It was, and that happened in October. He - at the time, he was in court, and he delivered a statement - an apology of sorts to the families of those he killed. Family members didn't take it very - take kindly toward it. They rejected it as irrelevant and ridiculous - were a couple of the comments I heard.

With that guilty plea, though, the acts - the facts of the case are no longer in dispute. Nikolas Cruz, as we all know now, had been a student at the high school in Parkland. He'd been expelled from the school a year earlier. He had history of emotional and behavioral problems. And then on Valentine's Day in 2018, as you mentioned, he entered a building and began firing his AR-15 style rifle in the hallways and into classrooms. He left behind a scene of carnage - 14 students and three adults dead, at least 17 other people seriously injured.

CHANG: Right. Well, as you say, Cruz's guilt is not what's at issue here. But can you just explain what exactly the jury is going to have to decide?

ALLEN: Right. Well, Judge Elizabeth Scherer is hearing the case, and she laid it out today for the prospective jurors. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH SCHERER: Only issue that will be before you if you are selected to serve on the jury in this case is the appropriate sentence for each of the 17 counts. The punishment is either life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or death.

ALLEN: The prosecution will detail what are termed aggravating circumstances, which are needed here in Florida for there to be a death sentence. They'll present evidence, for example, showing that it was a premeditated act. The defense will try to establish mitigating factors, and they'll present testimony and evidence from mental health experts to demonstrate that their client has what they've called a mental impairment. The jury's decision has to be unanimous, so the defense is hoping to convince at least one juror that life in prison, not death, is the appropriate sentence here.

CHANG: And do we expect the families of any of the victims to be testifying?

ALLEN: Yes. They'll be there to talk about their loved ones who are gone now and the impact those murders had on their families. Survivors of the shootings will also testify about what they saw and experienced that day. And that testimony is expected to be very powerful for the prosecution. The jury will also see videos of the shootings from school surveillance cameras, and so it's expected to be a very emotional and wrenching trial. But many families of the victims say they'll be there to see justice is done.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Allen in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "YELLOW NOISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.