Armed Parkland jurors visit school building still bloodstained as death sentence decision looms

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Jurors in the Trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz are expected to walk through the still blood-splattered halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Thursday during a visit to the three-story building where he murdered 14 students and three staff members Four years ago.

The jury of seven men, five women and 10 alternates will be bussed under tight security the 30 miles from the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to the suburban school. Law enforcement plans to cordon off the area around the school and planes may be banned from flying overhead to prevent protesters from interrupting proceedings and to protect the safety of jurors.

School shooting in Florida
The 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is pictured Wednesday, October 20, 2021.

Carline Jean/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP


The panelists and their law enforcement escorts will be escorted into the building by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, prosecutors and attorneys for Cruz. Cruz will not be present, according to one of his lawyers. Prosecutors, who are closing their case, hope the visit will help prove the former Stoneman Douglas student’s actions were cold, calculated, heinous and cruel; created a great risk of death for many people and “interfered with a government function” – all aggravating factors under Florida’s capital punishment law.

Under Florida court rules, neither the judge nor the attorneys are allowed to speak to jurors — and jurors are not allowed to converse with each other — when retracing the path Cruz took on Feb. 14, 2018, while he moved methodically from floor to floor, shooting down the halls and into the classrooms as he went. Jurors have already seen surveillance video of the shooting and photographs of its aftermath.

Journalists will not be permitted entry until the jurors have left and will not be permitted to carry cameras.

The building was sealed off and surrounded by a chain-link fence shortly after the massacre. Known as both the Freshman and Building 1200, it looms ominously over the school and its teachers, staff, and 3,300 students, and can be easily seen by anyone nearby. The Broward County School District plans to tear it down whenever prosecutors approve it. For the moment, it is an exhibit.

“When you walk past it, 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 Stoneman Douglas junior at the time of filming. . He’s now at the University of California, Berkeley, and a mental health phone app developer. “It’s just a constant reminder…it’s extremely taxing and horrifying.”

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

The interior of the building has remained almost intact since the shooting: bloodstains still smear the floor, and the doors and walls are riddled with bullets. The windows of the classroom doors are knocked down. Rotten Valentine’s Day flowers, deflated balloons and other gifts are strewn about. Only bodies and personal effects such as backpacks were removed.

Miami defense attorney David S. Weinstein said prosecutors hoped the visit would be “the last piece to clear any doubts a juror may have had that the death penalty is the only recommendation that can be made”.

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

One of the reasons for their rarity is that they are a logistical nightmare for the judge, who must get the jury to the scene and back to the courthouse without incident or risk of a mistrial. And in a typical case, a visit would not even present true evidence: after the departure of the police, the building or public space resumes its normal use. The scene is cleaned up, objects are moved, and repairs are made. This is why judges order jurors in many trials not to go to the scene alone.

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

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

Cruz’s attorneys argued that prosecutors used evidence not just to prove their case, but to inflame jurors’ passions.

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

On Wednesday, the jury also heard other impact statements from families who lost loved ones in the massacre, CBS Miami reported.

Among them, Tony and Jennifer Montalto whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was killed.

They described the devastating effects on their family.

“Gina was kind, smart and loved to read,” her father Tony said of recalling Gina saving a 2-year-old from drowning when she was just 10.

Max Schacter said his family was also broken. Her 14-year-old son, Alex, died in the shooting.

“A part of me will always be sad,” Schacter said.

His son Brian read a poem that Alex had written and thrown in the trash before the day of the killings.

The poem was titled “Life is like a roller coaster” and tells how the ups and downs of life feel like a fast roller coaster.

Max Schacter recited the poem several times to honor his son’s memory and illustrate the loss of a promising writer.

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