Parkland shooter prosecutors call for probe of juror threat

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Prosecutors of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz called for an investigation Friday after a juror said another panelist threatened her during the deliberations that ended with a life sentence for Cruz’s murder of 17 people four years ago at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Prosecutor Carolyn McCann told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer during a brief hearing that prosecutors are not trying to invalidate Thursday’s jury vote and reported the threat only for safety reasons and so the Broward County Sheriff’s Office can investigate.

In their written motion asking for the hearing, prosecutors said the juror told them another juror did something during deliberations that “she perceived to be a threat.”

McCann said they did not ask any further questions because they didn’t want to taint any investigation and said the Broward state attorney’s office has no intention of getting involved further.

“We don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole,” she said.

Scherer agreed that if a possible crime was committed, deputies should investigate. The information has been turned over to sheriff’s investigators, who will contact the juror.

Florida criminal defense attorneys Richard Escobar and David Weinstein, who are both former prosecutors, said in interviews that even if a threat was made to a juror, the jury’s decision cannot be overturned because of double jeopardy, or trying the same defendant twice for the same crime.

Weinstein pointed to a 1990s case involving two drug kingpins who bribed a jury and were acquitted. Even under that circumstance, prosecutors couldn’t retry the duo for drug trafficking, but did convict them on charges stemming from the bribery.

Scherer said two jurors tried to speak to her after Thursday’s decision was announced, she said, but she told them that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Scherer said a bailiff told her later that one juror wanted to speak to her during Thursday’s reading of the decision. That juror sat slumped over during the 50-minute reading but did nothing obvious to indicate he wanted Scherer’s attention. When the jurors were polled, he agreed the life sentence was the panel’s decision.

Jurors have told local TV stations that the final vote was 9-3 for death, with one of the three voters for life adamant she would never change her mind. Under Florida law, a death sentence requires a unanimous vote, and jurors decided there was no point in continuing deliberations.

That means Scherer will sentence Cruz to life without parole at a Nov. 1 hearing — a punishment whose announcement left many families of the victims angered, baffled and in tears. They will be allowed to address Cruz at the hearing.

Jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told local reporters “It really came down to a specific (juror) that he (Cruz) was mentally ill.”

Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty a year ago to murdering 14 Stoneman Douglas students and three staff members, and wounding 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018.

Cruz’s jury unanimously agreed there were aggravating factors to warrant a possible death sentence, such as agreeing that the murders were “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.”

But one or more jurors also found mitigating factors, such as untreated childhood problems stemming from his birth mother’s excessive drinking during pregnancy. In the end, the jury could not unanimously agree that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigators.

The jurors pledged during the selection process that they could vote for a death sentence, but some parents, including some who attended the trial almost daily, wondered whether they were all being honest.

Juror Denise Cunha sent a short handwritten note to the judge Thursday defending her vote for a life sentence and denying she intended to vote that way before the trial began.

“The deliberations were very tense and some jurors became extremely unhappy once I mentioned that I would vote for life,” Cunha wrote. She did not explain her vote. McCann said she is not the juror who reported the possible threat.

Thomas did not say whether that adamant life vote was Cunha’s.

___

Izaguirre reported from Tallahassee, Florida.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.