FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – To protect distressed families from the most gruesome details of how their loved ones were murdered in a mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the court is handling the shooter’s conviction trial took an extraordinary step: graphic videos and photographs are only shown to the jury, so that victims’ relatives and others in the courtroom gallery do not have to put up with them.
But the gruesome details, conveyed in moving testimonials, chilling audio recordings and unbiased forensic accounts, are impossible to completely avoid: how a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tied a baby blanket around her arm. a student injured like a tourniquet. How shots from a semi-automatic rifle exploded inside a classroom under attack. How powerful bullets ravaged children’s bodies.
Prosecutors argue the gruesome, though painful, details are necessary to prove to the jury that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty at 17 murders and 17 attempted murders, deserves the death penalty instead of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge allowed the evidence over objections from defense attorneys, who say it is repetitive, gruesome and intended to prejudice the jury against their client.
Trial of gunmen who killed so many in mass shootings are extremely rarebecause they almost always died during the attack. The public is almost never compelled to confront the grim evidence of autopsy reports, surveillance videos and testimonies from survivors at proceedings held years after the deadly rampage.
Many families of Parkland victims approved of prosecutors pursuing the death penalty, even knowing that the trial would be excruciating. They have sat in a downtown Fort Lauderdale courtroom nearly every day since the state began presenting its case last week, shaking their heads, dabbing at their eyes and holding each other to each other during the most difficult times.
Their opinion, however, is not unanimous. A small number of people connected to the tragedy have publicly opposed the death penalty, in part because the very process of getting a death sentence verdict and waiting the inevitable years of appeal would be so difficult.
“It won’t help us heal and turn a blind eye,” Michael B. Schulman, whose 35-year-old son Scott J. Beigel was killed in the shooting, written in 2019 in The South Florida Sun Sentinel. While he thought Mr. Cruz deserved death, Mr. Schulman wrote, pursuing that sentence would involve reliving February 14, 2018, shooting again and again.
Robert Schentrup, whose 16-year-old sister Carmen was killed in the shooting, totally opposes the death penalty.
“Parkland happened because of a cascading series of systemic failures, which got someone to the point of committing a school shooting and buying a military-style rifle,” said Mr. Schentrup in an interview. “We need to focus on the systems that failed us, rather than what I believe to be a symptom of that failure.”
Yet Mr. Schentrup’s position — which he described as shaped by his religious upbringing and by survivors of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, which preached forgiveness — is so unusual among families of Parkland victims who have spoken out about the trial that his parents have publicly disagreed with him. They believe Mr. Cruz, 23, should be sentenced to death.
“That day the shooter should have been arrested,” said Mr. Schentrup’s mother, April Schentrup. “We shouldn’t even have to endure this ordeal. If the police were doing what they were supposed to do, we wouldn’t be here.
Relatives of the victims filled several rows in the courtroom over the past two weeks, listening intently to lead prosecutor Michael J. Satz as he called dozens of witnesses. Some of the relatives have said they will not comment publicly while the trial is ongoing.
The experience of victims of similar tragedies underscores the distress of hearing the brutal details of the death of a loved one described in open court.
The Reverend Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lee Lance, died in the Charleston church attack, recalled sitting in court during that shooter’s trial as a torturous ordeal — especially when the prosecutors showed her mother’s autopsy report. “I felt like those 11 bullets were hitting my own body,” she said.
Even so, Ms Risher said she had no regrets attending the trial, which she described as one of the most difficult days of her life.
“You are able to confront your person in court, and that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “How could you not want to be here for this?”
Parkland’s trial is expected to continue in the fall, and the families of the victims will soon have an opportunity to address the jury.
Although the defendant’s guilt is not in issue, prosecutors must show jurors what happened in order to prove the aggravating factors required under Florida law to warrant the death penalty, according to Gail Levine, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who tried 15 capital homicides. Aggravating circumstances include that the murders were heinous, atrocious or cruel, and that they were carried out in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.
“They have to prove there are 17 murders and 17 attempted murders,” Ms Levine said. “The suffering endured by these people must be explained to the jury.”
The defense can argue — as they did in the Parkland case — that too much graphic evidence can taint the jury’s verdict, though judges often give prosecutors significant leeway.
“The defense is entitled not to have an overwhelmed jury,” said Robert M. Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida.
Several witnesses wept on the stand. Others testified for only a few minutes, with Mr. Satz asking minimal questions.
Anthony Borges, who was 15 at the time of the massacre, testified that he was shot five times while standing in the hallway. He opened his jacket during his testimony to show jurors the scars from gunshot wounds and 14 subsequent operations.
Some of the testimonies were chilling without being explicit: that two victims who were in the hallway tried to get to safety by knocking on their locked classroom door, but were killed before they could enter. That Mr. Cruz ran away from school and went to a Subway and a McDonald’s before being arrested. That the day before the massacre, he had searched the internet: “How long does it take for a cop to show up at a school shooting.”
Jurors also looked at surveillance footage of each shot victim and cellphone videos the students recorded during the shooting. They reviewed disturbing photographs of dead children in classrooms. And they saw autopsy photographs of almost all of the victims, most of whom had been shot more than once. A boy was hit with 12 gunshots, including four to the head.
Broward County Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Iouri Boiko said high-velocity bullets from the AR-15-style rifle caused significant damage, blowing off body parts and killing victims when their fragments hit internal organs .
“They explode like a blizzard,” he said of the bullets, which left large wounds as they exited. Reporters saw the graphic evidence at the end of each day of court hearings.
A girl suffered five wounds, including a fatal one to the head. Another girl, shot four times, had lost a large part of her arm. Dr Boiko described how a fatal abrasion suffered by a third girl fractured her skull and caused brain damage. The same girl, who was shot nine times, suffered another fatal wound that severed her spinal cord. A third injury blew part of his shoulder blade.
At least one family walked out of the courtroom during Dr. Boiko’s testimony. The testimonies of other forensic doctors brought tears to some relatives of the victims. At one point, a juror also wiped away tears.
Some families, including the Schentrups, chose not to attend the trial at all. Ms Schentrup said she had read occasional news articles or heard of families attending.
“We have no control over what happens in the courtroom with the jury,” she said. “They will make whatever decision they make. I feel like I understand what happened that day, and I don’t need to relive it.
Mr. Schentrup said he would find the trial traumatic. He and his parents prefer to remember Carmen, who was in full swing as a young woman and wanted to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“Healing, for me, is not something that will happen based on a verdict at the end of the trial,” he said.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.