Parkland jury gets rare view of bloody school massacre site

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL –

Jurors in the trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz toured the still blood-spattered rooms of a three-story building at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Thursday, an extremely rare visit to a crime scene. sealed intact since it murdered 14 students and three staff members four years ago.

The jury of seven men, five women and 10 alternates were bussed under heavy security 30 miles from the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to the suburban school, where classes were not held. They resume until the end of this month. Police cordoned off the area to prevent protesters from disrupting or endangering the safety of jurors.

The panelists and their police escorts were escorted into the building by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz’s attorneys, and walked around the building for about an hour and a half. Cruz waived his right to go with them. The journalists were being escorted to the site after the jury left, for the first public look. They were allowed to bring pen and paper, but no cameras.

Prosecutors, who are wrapping up their case, hope the visit will help show that the former Stoneman Douglas student’s actions were cold, calculated, heinous and cruel; he created a great risk of death for many people and “interfered with a function of the government,” all aggravating factors under Florida capital law.

Under Florida court rules, neither the judge nor the attorneys were allowed to speak to jurors, and jurors were not allowed to converse with each other, when they retraced Cruz’s path on February 14, 2018, while he moved methodically from floor to floor, shooting down hallways and into classrooms as he went. Prior to the tour, jurors had already seen surveillance video of the shooting and photos of its aftermath.

The building has been sealed off and surrounded by a chain-link fence since shortly after the massacre. Known as both the Freshman Building and the 1200, it looms ominously over the school and its teachers, staff, and 3,300 students, and can easily be seen by anyone nearby. The Broward County school district plans to tear it down when approved by prosecutors. For now, it is a judicial exhibition.

“When you drive by, it’s there. When you go to class, it’s there. It’s just a colossal structure that you can’t miss,” said Kai Koerber, who was a junior at Stoneman Douglas at the time of the shooting. . He is now at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the developer of a mental health phone app. “It’s just a constant reminder… that’s tremendously difficult and horrible.”

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder; the trial is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.

The interior of the building has been left mostly untouched since the shooting: bloodstains still stain the floor, and the doors and walls are riddled with bullet holes. The windows of the classroom doors are shot out. Rotten Valentine’s Day flowers, deflated balloons and other gifts are scattered everywhere. Only the bodies and personal items such as backpacks have been removed.

Miami defense attorney David S. Weinstein said prosecutors hope the visit will be “the final piece to erase any doubt any jury may have had that the death penalty is the only recommendation that can be made.”

Such visits to the site are rare. Weinstein, a former prosecutor, said that in more than 150 jury trials since the late 1980s, he has had only one.

One of the reasons for their rarity is that they are a logistical nightmare for the judge, who needs to get the jury to the scene and return to court without incident or risk a mistrial. And in a typical case, a visit would not even present truthful evidence: after the police leave, the building or public space returns to normal use. The scene is cleaned up, objects are moved, and repairs are made. That is why judges order jurors in many trials not to visit the scene on their own.

Craig Trocino, a University of Miami law professor who has represented defendants appealing their death sentences, said the visit, combined with the myriad of graphic videos and photos jurors have already seen, could open a pathway for Cruz’s lawyers if they find themselves in the same situation.

“At some point, the evidence becomes incendiary and damaging,” he said. “The site visit can be a cumulative cornerstone.”

Cruz’s attorneys have argued that prosecutors have used evidence not only to prove their case, but also to inflame the passions of jurors.

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case shortly after the visit.

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