FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida – The suspect in the 2018 murder of 17 people at a Florida high school is finally on trial – but not for the murders.
Jury selection begins Monday on charges. Nikolas Cruz attacked a Broward County jail guard nine months after the February 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Cruz, a former student of Stoneman Douglas, got into a fight with Sgt. Raymond Beltran after being jailed for killing 14 students and three staff and injuring 17 others. No date has been set for the murder trial, which has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments over witnesses and evidence. It could start in the next few months.
“The accused murderer who took the lives of our children is clearly violent and lashed out at a guard. He has to face the justice system for that, ”said Tony Montalto, president of Stand With Parkland, a group made up of families of victims. Her 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the shooting.
Cruz, 23, faces a 15-year sentence if convicted of attempted bodily harm on a law enforcement officer and three less serious charges. Cruz will get the death sentence or life in prison without parole if he is later convicted of first degree murder, but this trial is still relevant. If Cruz is found guilty of attacking Beltran, prosecutors can argue that this is an aggravating factor when requesting his execution during the sanction phase of his murder trial if found guilty.
“If this is seen as an aggravating factor, it will be difficult for it not to be on the minds of the jury,” said Mark Dobson, professor at Nova Southeastern University Law School and former Florida prosecutor.
Prosecutors declined any important comment, saying only in a statement that “the prison video and the evidence in the case speak for themselves.”
Cruz’s public defenders declined to comment, saying they did not want to further traumatize the families of the shooting victims by discussing their client.
Cruz’s attorneys are expected to argue that Beltran abused Cruz previously and sparked the November 13, 2018 brawl, which occurred in a recreation area of Broward County Jail and was captured on a silent security video.
According to court records, Cruz’s senior lawyer, Melisa McNeill, had complained six weeks before the fight to the Broward sheriff’s office about Beltran’s treatment of Cruz. No details of the alleged ill-treatment were released, but his lawyers said in a recent court hearing that Beltran is the only guard they complained about.
Cruz’s lawyers claim that the sheriff’s office deleted the video of the three hours that Cruz and Beltran spent together before the fight – even though they asked during the day that it be kept and that they were told it was ‘it would be.
The preserved video begins a few minutes before the fight. He shows Cruz walking alone in a circle with his head bowed around tables with benches attached. He is dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, a white long-sleeved undershirt and sandals. Beltran is seated at a table in the corner.
Suddenly, Cruz stops about 3 meters from Beltran and the two seem to be exchanging words – Beltran declared to the investigators that he had asked Cruz not to drag his feet and to damage his sandals.
Cruz returns the two adults to Beltran then charges the guard, who gets up to defend himself. Cruz, who weighs around 130 pounds (60 kilograms), throws the larger Beltran to the ground, before the guard can turn him over and briefly corner him. Cruz grabs Beltran’s stun gun and they fight for it to explode, apparently shaking neither of them, before the guard pulls it out.
Cruz escapes Beltran’s grip and the two take up boxing positions. Cruz hits Beltran on the shoulder before the guard hits Cruz on the head, causing him to stagger.
Beltran then rearms his stun gun and points it at Cruz, who was seated on a bench. Cruz is lying face down and is handcuffed. The fight lasted almost exactly a minute. Neither was seriously injured.
Due to Cruz’s infamy in South Florida, jury selection is expected to last three days – in a typical prison battery trial with an accused the public does not know, it would likely take a few hours. The court plans to shortlist 400 people to accommodate six jurors and deputies. The typical pool for prison battery trials and similar crimes is 22, according to the Florida Bar.
Cruz’s lawyers will want to eliminate all the candidates who cannot separate their knowledge of the Stoneman Douglas massacre from the only considerations that the jurors are supposed to make during this trial: did Cruz attack Beltran and, if so, did it been provoked? Testimonies about the murders will not be allowed as it has nothing to do with the assault charge and would be prejudicial.
Once the jury is selected, the remainder of the trial is expected to last only one to three days.
The murder trial is expected to last for months. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has held frequent hearings in recent weeks to consider issues that need to be addressed before the start.
“The wheels of justice are turning slowly and this is especially true with our group of families,” said Montalto.
Cruz’s lawyers said he would plead guilty to 17 murders in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors declined the offer, saying it was a case that deserved a death sentence.
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