February 4, 2023

In an extremely rare visit to the sealed-off crime scene, jurors in the sentencing trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz toured the still blood-spattered rooms of a three-story building at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Thursday.

Cruz has already pleaded guilty to murdering 14 students and three teachers in the 2018 massacre, and now a jury of 12 will decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. Reporters were allowed brief entry to the building following the jury, but cameras were forbidden.

The building has been sealed off since the shooting, and the sight was deeply unsettling: Large pools of dried blood still stained classroom floors. 

Windows in classroom doors are shot out, with shards of glass littering the floor. 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. 

A lock of dark hair rested on the floor where one of the victims’ bodies once lay. A single black rubber shoe was in a hallway. Browned rose petals were strewn across a hallway where six people died.

In classroom after classroom, open notebooks displayed uncompleted lesson plans: A blood-coated book called ‘Tell Them We Remember’ sat atop a bullet-riddled desk in the classroom where teacher Ivy Schamis taught students about the Holocaust. Attached to a bulletin board in the room a sign read: ‘We will never forget.’

In the classroom of English teacher Dara Hass, where the most students were gunned down, students had written papers about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban for going to school and has since been a global advocate for educational access for women and girls. 

One of the students wrote: ‘A bullet went straight to her head but not her brain.’ Another read: ‘We go to school every day of the week and we take it all for granted. We cry and complain without knowing how lucky we are to be able to learn.’

Vans transporting jurors arrive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Thursday. The building has been sealed off since the shooting, and the sight was deeply unsettling: Large pools of dried blood still stained classroom floors

School shooter Nikolas Cruz is led from the courtroom after he was sworn in and waved his right to be present at the school while the jury walks through the crime scene on Thursday

A sign reading ‘1240 west facing window’ and five bullet holes can be seen in a third floor window of the building, which has remained sealed since the massacre on February 14, 2018

An evidence photo from 2018 shows the interior of the same window. Cameras were not allowed in the building on Thursday, but the scene has remained essentially untouched for the past four years

A bullet hole can be seen in a second floor window of the ‘1200 building,’ the crime scene where the shootings took place

Cruz’s attorney Nawal Najet Bashiman wipes away tears while listening to parents tell of their grief in court Tuesday. The jury listening to those parents’ victim impact statement will decide whether to sentence Cruz to life in prison or death

The door of Room 1255, teacher Stacey Lippel’s classroom, was pushed open – like others to signify that Cruz shot into it. Hanging on a wall inside was a sign reading, ‘No Bully Zone.’ The creative writing assignment for the day was written on the whiteboard: ‘How to write the perfect love letter.’

And still hanging on the wall of a second-floor hallway was a quote from James Dean: ‘Dream as if you´ll live forever, live as if you´ll die today.’

Inside slain teacher Scott Beigel’s geography classroom, his laptop was still open on his desk. Student assignments comparing the tenets of Christianity and Islam remained there, some graded, some not. 

On his whiteboard, Beigel, the school’s cross-country coach, had been writing the gold, silver and bronze medalists in each event at the Winter Olympics, which had begun five days earlier.

The visit to the murder scene capped off the arguments from the prosecution, which rested its case on Thursday afternoon after 12 days of emotional testimony, which moved even the killer’s own attorney to tears earlier this week. 

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 sealed off the area to prevent protesters from interrupting or endangering the jurors’ safety.

The panelists and their law enforcement escorts were accompanied into the building by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, prosecutors and Cruz’s attorneys, and walked through the site for about an hour and a half. 

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Cruz waived his right to go with them. Journalists were being escorted into the site after the jury left, for the first public look. They were allowed to carry paper and pen but no cameras.

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 were allowed to speak to the jurors – and the jurors weren’t allowed to converse with each other – when they retraced the path Cruz followed on February 14, 2018, as he methodically moved from floor to floor, firing down hallways and into classrooms as he went. 

Surveillance video shows Cruz inside the school in 2018. Jurors retraced the path Cruz followed on February 14, 2018, as he methodically moved from floor to floor, firing down hallways and into classrooms as he went

Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor, second from right, and Assistant State Attorney Mike Satz enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Thursday in Parkland, Florida

Members of the prosecution team walk towards the entrance of the school. 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

Vans transporting jurors are seen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Thursday. Jurors went to view the 1200 building, the crime scene where the 2018 shootings took place during this penalty phase in the trial of Nikolas Cruz

Prior to the tour, the jurors had already seen surveillance video of the shooting and photographs of its aftermath.

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.

‘When you are driving past, it’s there. When you are going to class, it’s there. It is just a colossal structure that you can’t miss,’ said Kai Koerber, who was a Stoneman Douglas junior at the time of the shooting. 

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He is now at the University of California, Berkeley, and the developer of a mental health phone app. ‘It is just a constant reminder … that is tremendously trying and horrible.’

Cruz, 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.

Cruz is seen inside the school in an image released during the investigation. 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

Tamara Curtis clasps her hands and closes her eyes while listening to the parents give victim impact statements Tuesday

Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis wipes her eyes during victim impact statements in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz

Miami defense attorney David S. Weinstein said prosecutors hope the visit to the school 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.

One reason for their rarity is that they are a logistical nightmare for the judge, who needs to get the jury to the location and back to the courthouse without incident or risk a mistrial. 

And in a typical case, a visit wouldn’t even present truthful evidence: After law enforcement leaves, the building or public space returns to its normal use. The scene gets cleaned up, objects get moved and repairs are made. It’s why judges order jurors in many trials not to visit the scene on their own.

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 an avenue for Cruz’s attorneys if they find themselves in the same situation.

‘At some point evidence becomes inflammatory and prejudicial,’ he said. ‘The site visit may be a cumulative capstone.’

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