In Parkland lawsuit, families must endure horrific evidence repeatedly

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Robert Schentrup, 23, lost his younger sister Carmen in the Parkland shooting. (Grant Hindsley/The New York Times)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — To protect heartbreaking families from the most macabre details of how their loved ones were murdered in a mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, the court hearing the gunman’s criminal case has taken an extraordinary step: Graphics Videos and photos have been shown only to the jury so that relatives of victims and others in the courtroom do not have to endure them.

But the horrifying details, conveyed in emotional witness statements, chilling audio recordings and emotionless forensic records, are impossible to avoid altogether: how a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tied a baby blanket around an injured student’s arm like a tourniquet. How the gunfire from a semi-automatic rifle boomed into an attacked classroom. How the powerful bullets destroyed the bodies of children.

Prosecutors argue that the gruesome details, while painful, are needed to prove to the jury that the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, who has pleaded guilty to 17 murders and 17 attempted murders, deserves the death penalty rather than life without the possibility of parole. . The judge has allowed evidence on the objections from defense attorneys, who say it is repetitive, horrific and intended to prejudice the jury against their client.

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Such is the nature of the death penalty: Pursuing a death sentence, even against a defendant whose guilt has never been questioned, requires that a community that has already survived an unimaginable tragedy must suffer even more.

Trials of gunmen who have killed so many people in mass shootings are rare, as they almost always died in the attack. The public is almost never forced to confront stark evidence from autopsy reports, surveillance videos, and testimony from survivors in proceedings held years after the deadly disaster.

Many families of the Parkland victims support the prosecution’s pursuit of the death penalty, even knowing the trial would be unbearable. They have sat in a courtroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale almost every day since the state began presenting its case last week, shaking their heads, dabbing their eyes and holding each other through the toughest moments.

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However, their opinion is not unanimously accepted. A small number of people involved in the tragedy have publicly opposed the death penalty, in part because the process of getting a death penalty sentence and waiting for the inevitable years of appeals would be so difficult.

“This is not going to help us heal and get any kind of closure,” wrote Michael B. Schulman, whose 35-year-old son, Scott J. Beigel, was killed in the shooting, in 2019 in The South Florida Sun Sentinel. Though he believed Cruz deserved to die, Schulman wrote, pursuing that phrase would mean reliving the February 14, 2018, shooting him over and over.

Robert Schentrup, whose 16-year-old sister Carmen was killed in the shooting, is against the death penalty.

“Parkland was the result of a series of cascading, systemic failures, which could get someone to the point where they would have a school shooting and buy a military-style rifle,” Schentrup said. “We need to focus on the systems that have let us down, rather than what I think is the symptom of that failure.”

Yet Schentrup’s position — whom he described as shaped by his religious upbringing and by survivors of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina who preached forgiveness — is so unusual among the families of the Parkland victims who have spoken out about the trial. that his parents publicly disagree with him. They believe that Cruz, 23, should be sentenced to death.

“The shooter should have been stopped that day,” said Schentrup’s mother, April Schentrup. “We shouldn’t even have to go through this ordeal. If the police did what they had to do, we wouldn’t be here.”

Victims’ next of kin have filled several lines in the courtroom over the past two weeks, listening intently as the lead prosecutor, Michael J. Satz, called dozens of witnesses. Some family members have said they would not comment publicly during the trial.

The experience of victims of similar tragedies points to the sadness of hearing the brutal details of the death of a loved one described in the public courtroom.

Reverend Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lance, died in the attack on the church in Charleston, recalled sitting in court during that gunman’s trial as a torturous ordeal — especially when prosecutors showed her mother’s autopsy report. “It felt like all those 11 bullets hit my own body,” she said.

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Still, Risher said she doesn’t regret attending the trial, which she described as one of the hardest days of her life.

“You can take your person to court, and that’s what matters,” she said. “How can you not want to be for that?”

The Parkland trial is expected to continue into the fall and the victims’ families will soon have a chance to address the jury.

While the defendant’s guilt is undisputed, prosecutors must show jurors what happened to prove the aggravating factors required by Florida law to warrant the death penalty, said Gail Levine, a former prosecutor in Florida. Miami-Dade County who charged 15 homicides with death. . The aggravating factors include that the murders were gruesome, horrific or cruel and that they were committed on a cold, calculated and premeditated basis.

“They need to prove that there are 17 murders and 17 attempted murders,” Levine said. “The suffering these people endured must be explained to the jury.”

The defense can – as in the Parkland case – counter that too much graphic evidence can affect the jury’s verdict, although judges often give prosecutors a lot of leeway.

“The defense has a right not to have a jury that is overwhelmed,” said Robert M. Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida.

Several witnesses have cried in the stands. Others only testified for a few minutes, with Satz asking minimal questions.

Anthony Borges, who was 15 at the time of the massacre, testified that he was shot five times while in the hallway. He unzipped his jacket during his testimony to reveal the jurors’ scars from the gunshot wounds and from 14 subsequent surgeries.

Some of the accounts were horrifying without being pathetic: that two victims who were in the hallway tried to escape to safety by knocking on the door of their locked classroom, but were killed before they could enter. That Cruz fled school and went to a subway and a McDonald’s before being arrested. That he had searched online the day before the massacre: “How long does it take for a cop to show up at a school shooting.”

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Jurors also looked at surveillance footage of each victim being shot, and cell phone videos students recorded during the shooting. They have looked at disturbing photos of dead children in classrooms. And they’ve seen autopsy photos of nearly all of the victims, most of whom have been shot more than once. A boy was hit with 12 gunshots, including four in the head.

dr. Iouri Boiko, an associate medical examiner from Broward County, said the high-velocity bullets from the AR-15-style rifle wreaked havoc, blew off body parts and killed victims as their fragments reached internal organs.

“They’re blowing up like a blizzard,” he said of the bullets, which left large exit wounds. Reporters reviewed the graphic evidence at the end of each day session in court.

A girl suffered five injuries, including one fatal to the head. Another girl, who was shot four times, was missing a large part of her arm. Boiko described how a fatal abrasion from a third girl fractured her skull and caused brain damage. The same girl, who was shot nine times, suffered another fatal wound that severed her spinal cord. A third wound blew off part of her shoulder blade.

During Boiko’s testimony, at least one family walked out of the courtroom. Testimonials from other medical researchers made the relatives of some victims cry. At one point, a female juror also wiped away tears.

Some families, including the Schentrups, have chosen not to see the process at all. April Schentrup said she has occasionally read or heard news articles from families present.

“We have no control over what happens in court to the jury,” she said. “They will make the decision they make. I feel like I understand what happened that day, and I don’t have to relive it.”

Robert Schentrup said he would find the process traumatizing. He and his parents fondly remember Carmen, who as a young woman struggled to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“Healing for me is not something that will happen based on a verdict at the end of the trial,” he said.

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