The jurors atis expected to walk through the still blood-stained rooms of Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Thursday in a visit to the three-story building where four years ago.
The panel of seven men, five women and 10 alternates will be transported 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 the aircraft may be prohibited from flying overhead to prevent protesters from disrupting proceedings and protect the safety of jurors.
The panelists and law enforcement escorts will be joined in the building by U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz’s attorneys. Cruz will not be in attendance, according to one of his lawyers. Prosecutors, wrapping up 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 to many people and “interfered with a governmental function” – all aggravating factors under Florida’s death penalty law.
Under Florida court rules, neither the judge nor attorneys are allowed to speak to jurors — and jurors are not allowed to talk to each other — as they follow the path Cruz followed on Feb. 14, 2018, as he methodically moved from floor to floor on a floor, shooting down hallways and classrooms as he went. Jurors have already seen surveillance video of the shooting and photos of the aftermath.
Reporters will not be allowed to enter until after the jurors have left and will not be allowed to bring cameras.
The building has been sealed off and surrounded by a chain-link fence since shortly after the massacre. Known as both Freshman and Building 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 demolish it whenever prosecutors approve. For now, it is a court exhibit.
“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 Stoneman Douglas junior at the time of the shooting. . He is now at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the creator of a mental health phone app. “It’s just a constant reminder … that it’s terribly 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 without parole.
The interior of the building is largely intact after the shooting: Bloodstains still stain the floor, and the doors and walls are riddled with bullet holes. The windows in the classroom doors are shot. Rotting Valentine’s Day flowers, deflated balloons and other gifts are strewn around. 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 that any jurors may have had that the death penalty is the only recommendation.”
Such site visits are rare. Weinstein, a former prosecutor, said that in more than 150 jury trials dating back to the late 1980s, he had only one.
One reason for their rarity is that they are a logistical nightmare for the judge, who must get jurors to the location and back to the courthouse without incident or risk a miscarriage of justice. And in a typical case, a visit wouldn’t even present real evidence: After law enforcement leaves, the building or public space returns to its normal use. The scene is cleaned, items are moved and repairs are made. This is why judges order jurors in many trials not to visit 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 already seen by jurors — could open an avenue for Cruz’s lawyers if they find themselves in the same situation.
“At some point the evidence becomes inflammatory and prejudicial,” he said. “The site visit can be a cumulative milestone.”
Cruz’s lawyers argued that prosecutors used evidence not only to prove their case, but to inflame jurors’ passions.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case shortly after the visit.
On Wednesday, the jury also heard more impact statements from families who lost loved ones in the massacre,.
Among them are Tony and Jennifer Modalto 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 as he recalled Gina saving a 2-year-old from drowning when Gina was just 10 years old.
Max Schacter said his family is also torn apart. His 14-year-old son Alex died in the mass 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 murders.
The poem was titled “Life is like a roller coaster” and tells how life’s ups and downs are like a roller coaster that moves fast.
Max Schacter has recited the poem on several occasions to honor his son’s memory and to depict the loss of a promising writer.