Jurors in the trial of a Florida gunman were taken to see 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 off since he murdered 14 students and three staff members four years ago.
The seven-man, five-woman jury and 10 alternates were bused under heavy security 30 miles from the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to the suburban school, where classes don't resume until later this month. Law enforcement was sealing off the area and plans called for closing the airspace above to prevent protesters from interrupting or endangering the jurors' safety.
The panelists and their law enforcement escorts were being accompanied into the building by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, prosecutors and the gunman's attorneys. The gunman waived his right to go with them.
Prosecutors, who are winding up their case, hope the visit will help prove that 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 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 the jurors — and the jurors aren't allowed to converse with each other — when they retrace the path the 19-year-old followed on Feb. 14, 2018, as he methodically moved from floor to floor, firing down hallways and into classrooms as he went. The jurors have already seen surveillance video of the shooting and photographs of its aftermath.
Once the jurors leave, a pool of journalists will be escorted inside — allowed to carry paper and pen but no cameras — for the first public look.
The building has been sealed and surrounded by a chain-link fence since shortly after the massacre. Known both as the freshman and 1200 building, it looms ominously over the school and its teachers, staff and 3,300 students, and can be seen easily by anyone nearby. The Broward County school district plans to demolish it whenever the prosecutors approve. For now, it is a court exhibit.
The gunman, now 23, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder; the trial is only to determine if he is sentenced to death or life without parole.
The building's interior has been left nearly intact since the shooting: Bloodstains still smear the floor, and doors and walls are riddled with bullet holes. Windows in classroom doors are shot out. Rotted Valentine's Day flowers, deflated balloons and other gifts are strewn about. Only the bodies and personal belongings such as backpacks have been removed.
Miami defense attorney David S. Weinstein said prosecutors hope the visit will be “the final piece in erasing any doubt that any juror might have had that the death penalty is the only recommendation that can be made.”
Such site visits are rare. Weinstein, a former prosecutor, said in more than 150 jury trials dating back to the late 1980s, he has only had one.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case shortly after the visit.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.