FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — The jurors chosen last week to decide whether Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz is executed will visit a bloody crime scene, view graphic photos and video and listen to intense emotional testimony – an experience they will have to deal with entirely by themselves.
Throughout what is expected to be a months-long trial, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will order jurors not to tell anyone about what they saw, heard or thought. Not their spouse. Not their best friend. Not their clergy or their therapist. Not even among themselves until the deliberations begin. The order is not unusual; it is issued at all trials to ensure that jurors’ opinions are not influenced by outsiders.
Once the trial is over, the 12 jurors and 10 alternates can offload to others, but they will not receive any help from the court system. As is the case in most of the United States, neither Florida nor Broward County courts provide jurors with post-trial guidance.
The only state to do so is Massachusetts, which has only offered the service since December. Since 2005, federal courts have offered assistance after about 20 trials a year, typically those involving the death penalty, child pornography and child abuse cases, federal court system spokesman Charles Hall said. .
“Judges and jurors appreciate” the program, Hall said, “regarding it as an acknowledgment of the extraordinary stress that jury service in certain types of trials can entail.”
“That said, the program is not well used,” Hall added.
Cruz’s jurors will visit the now abandoned three-story building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 23-year-old Cruz killed 14 students and three staff and injured 17. His bullet-riddled halls remain unchanged since shortly after the 2 Feb 14. 2018 massacre, with Valentine’s Day gifts still strewn about.
They’ll view graphic security video of terrified teenagers and teachers shot at close range or fleeing for their lives, examine autopsy and crime scene photos, and hear heartbreaking testimonies from injured survivors and members of the family of murder victims. When it’s over, jurors will grapple with the weighty decision of whether a young adult — even someone responsible for one of the worst massacres in the country’s history — should live or die.
“It’s going to be horrible,” Cruz’s lead attorney, Melisa McNeill, a potential juror in court recently warned.
Jim Wolfcale was the Virginia jury foreman who convicted Lee Boyd Malvo for his role in one of multiple deaths that resulted in a 2002 series of sniper shootings in Washington, D.C.
Wolfcale said he sometimes struggled not to speak to other jurors, particularly after Malvo appeared “disrespectful or arrogant” during testimony.
“I would say, ‘You must be kidding me,’ so it would be hard not to talk about it. I would ask myself: ‘Am I thinking well? Are the other guys and gals on the jury thinking what I’m thinking? said Wolfcale, a minister. But outside of court, his wife and friends never asked about the case, knowing he couldn’t speak. , ‘We pray for you.’
Malvo, in his teens like Cruz, admitted in court to killing 17 people. Unlike Cruz, he committed the murders over nine months in multiple states.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder, but is contesting his death penalty trial. For him to be sentenced to death, all the jurors must agree. Otherwise, the former Stoneman Douglas student will receive life without parole.
For all or most of Cruz’s jurors, this will undoubtedly be their first exposure to graphic gun violence and they will face the deadliest mass shooting ever tried in the United States Nine other people in the United States who have killed at least 17 people of the people died during or immediately after their attacks. The suspect in the 2019 massacre of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, Walmart is awaiting trial.
Wolfcale said that during the Malvo trial, other jurors sometimes collapsed in the jury room after seeing graphic evidence or hearing emotional testimony. They were kissing and distracting themselves by talking about the upcoming Christmas holidays. Malvo was ultimately given a life sentence instead of the death penalty because the jury was split, in part due to the defendant’s young age.
Wolfcale – who voted to execute Malvo – said he didn’t feel stressed until late on the final day of the trial. Then he said, ‘It hit me’ – and stuck with it for months.
“Even today, 20 years later, when your adrenaline is high, you can remember a lot of things, but those first six months were constantly on my mind,” he said.
Responding to a survey conducted by the Center for Jury Studies, 70% of jurors surveyed said they felt stress during routine trials, according to center director Paula Hannaford-Agor. She said 10% reported severe stress, although this usually decreases quickly.
By contrast, about 10% of jurors who have participated in high-profile graphic trials have reported long-term stress, Hannaford-Agor said. They had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to those exhibited by some police, firefighters and emergency room doctors, she said. The difference is that first responders can talk to co-workers, friends and advisors in real time, while stress mounts.
“The jurors, of course, are told they’re not allowed to talk about it” until the end of the trial, Hannaford-Agor said.
Studies also show that many jurors who have been sentenced to death wonder long after the trial.
“None of them said it was something that completely derailed their lives, but…years later they were still thinking about it and wondering if they had made the right decision, and remembering how difficult that decision was,” Hannaford-Agor said.
Only jurors 65 and older can get mental health services through Medicare. Young jurors can be covered by jobs or private insurance, but this sometimes requires co-payments and deductibles running into thousands of dollars. This could deter more than one.
In addition to the cost factor, courts don’t offer programs because judges and other officials have experience dealing with graphic evidence and can talk to others during the trial, Hannaford-Agor said. They might not fully appreciate the stress level of the jurors.
The judges “don’t feel it as intensely,” she said. ———
Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.