FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Roses presented to honor love this Valentine’s Day in 2018 were withered, their dried and cracked petals strewn across classroom floors still smeared with the blood of victims shot dead by a former student there. over four years.
Bullet holes ripped through the walls and shards of window glass shattered by gunfire cracked underfoot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where gunman Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members. Nothing had been changed except for the removal of the victims’ bodies and some personal items.
Twelve jurors and 10 alternates who will decide whether Cruz receives the death penalty or life in prison paid a rare visit to the scene of the massacre Thursday, retracing Cruz’s steps through the three-story freshman building, known as “Building 12”. After they left, a group of reporters were allowed in for a much quicker public first view.
The sight was deeply disturbing: large puddles of dried blood still stained the classroom floors. A lock of black hair lay on the ground where the body of one of the victims once lay. A single black rubber shoe stood in a hallway. Burnished rose petals were strewn across a hallway where six people died.
Class after class, open notebooks displayed unfinished lessons. A bloodied book titled “Tell Them We Remember” lay on a bullet-riddled desk in the classroom where teacher Ivy Schamis was teaching students about the Holocaust. A sign attached to a bulletin board read: “We will never forget.” Two students died there.
In the classroom of English teacher Dara Hass, where most of the students were shot, there were essays on Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot dead by the Taliban for attending school, and who has since been become a global advocate for access to education for women and girls.
“A bullet went straight to his head but not to his brain,” one student wrote. “We go to school every day of the week and take everything for granted,” another wrote. “We cry and complain not knowing how lucky we are to be able to learn.”
The door to room 1255, teacher Stacey Lippel’s classroom, was pushed open – like others to signify that Cruz shot it. Hanging on a wall inside was a sign that read ‘No Bully Zone’. The day’s creative writing assignment was on the whiteboard: “How to write the perfect love letter.”
And still hanging on the wall in a second-story hallway was a quote from James Dean: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
In Professor Scott Beigel’s geography class, a laptop was always open on his desk. Student assignments comparing the tenets of Christianity and Islam remained, some graded, some not. On his whiteboard, Beigel, the school’s cross-country coach, had written the gold, silver and bronze medalists in each event of the Winter Olympics, which had started five days earlier. .
Prosecutors, who closed their case after the jury visit, hope the visit will help prove that Cruz’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 were allowed to talk to jurors — and jurors weren’t allowed to converse with each other — when they retraced Cruz’s path on Feb. 14, 2018. , as he moved from floor to floor, shooting down hallways and into classrooms. Prior to the tour, jurors had already seen surveillance video of the shooting and photographs of its aftermath.
The building was sealed off and was surrounded by a 15-foot chain-link fence wrapped in privacy mesh tied with zip ties. 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 pass 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.
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 visits to crime scenes are rare. Weinstein, a former prosecutor, said that in more than 150 jury trials dating back to the late 1980s, he only had one.
In most trials a visit to the scene of the crime would not even be considered as years later it is not the same location as when the crime happened and can give the wrong idea of what happened. ‘has passed. But in this case, the building was sealed off so it could be done.
Cruz’s attorneys argued that prosecutors used what they say was provocative evidence, including Thursday’s visit, not only to prove their case, but to inflame jurors’ passions.
After jurors returned to the courtroom on Thursday, the mothers of two victims testified that the massacre had permanently darkened not only every Valentine’s Day, but also other important family celebrations.
Helena Ramsay, 17, died on her father’s birthday. “Today will never be a holiday and can never be the same for him again,” said his mother, Anne Ramsay.
Hui Wang, whose 15-year-old son Peter was killed, said the shooting took place on the eve of Chinese New Year. A planned celebration was canceled that year and every year since.
“This day of unity has become a day that hurts the most,” she said.
The athletic director’s wife, Chris Hixon, and their 26-year-old son, who has special needs, also spoke on the fourth and final day when jurors heard from the families of the victims. Hixon, a 49-year-old Navy veteran, died charging into the building trying to stop Cruz and protect the students.
Corey Hixon described a weekly ritual of getting donuts with his dad.
“I miss him,” he said simply.