FORT LAUDERDALE — It’s like walking into a cemetery, said reporters who toured Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s freshman building Thursday. The blood on the floor is a flaky, faded brown. The contents of a half-drunk plastic cup on a student’s desk are dark and muddy.
The bodies of Nikolas Cruz’s 17 victims are no longer there, but most everything else remains unchanged in the hallways and classrooms that have been kept as active crime scenes in Parkland for more than four years.
“This was a very difficult scene,” said Rafael Olmeda, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter who was among five reporters who visited the school as part of the penalty phase of Cruz’s trial. “It was disturbing on many levels.”
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Their tour of the building follows weeks of testimony against Cruz, who pleaded guilty to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others on Feb. 14, 2018. A 12-person jury must now decide whether to recommend he be executed or sentenced to life in prison. life imprisonment without parole. If they choose death, District Judge Elizabeth Scherer will make the final call.
To aid the jury’s decision, and against the wishes of Cruz’s defense team, prosecutors arranged a visit Thursday to the 1200 block of Stoneman Douglas, where the attack occurred. Jurors traded their electronics for optional face masks, gloves and shoe covers before heading inside.
As with all graphic evidence presented during the trial, the judge allowed only five reporters access to it. They toured the school after jurors left on the condition that they, too, not take pictures or video. Thursday’s tour coincided with the 22nd birthday of Joaquin Oliver, who Cruz shot in the head as he lay wounded in a third-floor alcove.
“What we saw was the end result of kids who were in the middle of an average day, having a really great time,” Olmeda said. “And suddenly, a nightmare erupts right in front of them.”
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The building tour gives Valentine’s Day scenes that were interrupted
The interior of the 1200 building is like a moment frozen in time, Olmeda said: laptops left open and work strewn about. an essay, unfinished, about how lucky its author was to receive an education.
A once-white teddy bear lay tossed on the floor of the stairwell, where students fled, Terry Spencer of the Associated Press added, and broken glass, wilted rose petals and deflated balloons littered classroom floors.
They also saw unexplained things, Spencer said, like three wall clocks lying face down in a row on the ground, perfectly spaced apart. And terrible things, like bloodstains and yellow-green “brain matter” on the wall.
Among the most disturbing sights was the alcove where Joaquin died, the reporters said. He was shot in the leg first and hid in an alcove with other injured students. When the others fled, he was left behind, unable to move.
“We don’t just see a big pool of blood where Joaquin Oliver died,” Olmeda said. “We see a large pool of blood where, we know from testimony, Joaquin Oliver was sitting and waiting, knowing he was going to be shot next.”
Joaquin raised his hand over his face to protect himself when Cruz stood over him and raised his rifle. Two bullet holes in the wall “show how futile this effort was,” the reporters wrote.
“When you hear that and then you see the blood that’s left behind, it really impresses you as a person,” Olmeda said. “What do you think happened in the last moments of this child’s life? This was a child.”
They saw a tuft of dark hair on the floor near where Joaquin’s body would have been and a blood-stained Valentine’s Day decoration near it.
Olmeda’s voice trembled as she recounted what she saw. Disturbing as it is, the details he shared are sanitized, he said, scribbled hastily on notebooks as he and four others walked through the building.
He watched the jurors, who filed in and out of the building before him. They were stone, he said.
Nikolas Cruz’s defense team warned the tour would ‘blow the jury’
Cruz’s defense team challenged jurors’ access to the school out of concern that it would injure them and unduly influence their decision about Cruz’s fate. The 12-person jury may be inclined to recommend the death penalty “based on emotion rather than logic,” they warned.
They argued that the evidence presented in court was more than enough to familiarize jurors with the case. They saw footage of the shooting and photos of its aftermath – most too graphic to be shown to the rest of the courtroom.
Cruz’s defense team also took issue with the fact that memorials and photos of the victims decorate the campus and surrounding areas. Exposing jurors to them was an attempt by prosecutors to “inflame the jury” and create undue prejudice, they argued.
The “symbolic, personal items” that littered the classrooms and hallways could cause jurors to feel “so much compassion for the victims” that they cannot remain impartial, the defense team warned in a motion to the judge, which he ultimately rejected. .
When they returned to the Broward County courthouse, prosecutors called their last witnesses to the stand: the remaining family members of the victims who had not yet addressed the jury.
The disabled son of Stoneman Douglas athletic director Chris Hixon, who, at the sound of gunfire, ran into the freshman building to confront Cruz, was among them. Corey Hixon joined his mother in the booth and wrapped his arms around her.
“I miss!” cried.
Started to cry. And for a rare moment, some jurors did too.
The Associated Press’ Terry Spencer, Court TV’s Emanuella Grinberg, The Sun-Sentinel’s Rafael Olmeda, Local 10’s Christina Vasquez and CBS 4’s Joan Murray contributed to this report.
Hannah Phillips is a public safety and criminal justice reporter for The Palm Beach Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post: Marjory Stoneman Douglas crime scene where Nikolas Cruz killed 17