Parkland experiences a rare and reduced look at mass shootings

Parkland experiences a rare and reduced look at mass shootings

Florida photos at school (© South Florida Sun Sentinel 2022)

Florida photos at school (© South Florida Sun Sentinel 2022)

Few Americans outside law enforcement and government have ever seen the most explicit videos or photos of the nation’s worst mass shootings – in most states, such evidence is only viewed during trial and most of these assassins dies during or immediately after their attacks. They never go to court.

This made the penalty trial against Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz for his 2018 murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland unusual.

Being the worst mass shooting in the United States to arrive at trial, surveillance videos taken during his attack and photos from the crime scene and autopsy showing the horrific aftermath are seen by jurors on screened video screens and, after each court session every day, shown to a small group of reporters But they are not shown in the gallery, where parents and spouses sit, or to the general public watching TV.

Some online believe it should change: that in order to have an informed debate on gun violence, the public would have to see the carnage wreaked by mass shooters like Cruz, often with high-velocity bullets fired from AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and similar weapons.

Others disagree. They say public viewing of such videos and photos would add to the damage victims’ families already suffer and could lead some who are mentally disturbed to commit their own mass shootings. They believe such evidence should remain sealed.

Liz Dunning, vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, doesn’t believe that the release of such videos and photos would have the political impact that some think. Polls show that most Americans already support stricter background checks for gun buyers and bans or restrictions on AR-15s and similar weapons, said Dunning, whose mother was killed by a gunman.

“Public perception isn’t the problem,” Dunning said. “We should ask the powerful for more.”

Because most of the worst US mass shooters were killed by themselves or by the police during or immediately after their attack, it is rare for anyone outside the government to see such surveillance videos or police and autopsy photos. The public did not see such evidence after the shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, Orlando in 2016, Sandy Hook in 2012, Virginia Tech in 2007 and others.

But Cruz, 23, fled after his shooting and was arrested an hour later. He pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first degree murder: his trial is only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or to life in prison without parole. The videos and photos are part of the prosecution case.

Since the trial began on July 18, everyone in the courtroom and watching TV has seen and heard heartbreaking testimony from teachers and students who have seen others die. They heard the gunshots and screams as the jurors watched the videos on their cell phones.

But when graphical videos and photos are presented, those are not shown. They usually only hear coroners and police officers providing emotionless descriptions of what the jury is seeing.

Then, at the end of each day, a group of reporters review the photos and videos, but are only allowed to write descriptions. This was a compromise as some parents feared that photos of their dead children would be posted online and did not want access to the media.

Miami media attorney Thomas Julin said in Florida before the internet, any photos or other evidence presented at the trial could be seen and copied by anyone. The newspapers didn’t print the most creepy photos, so nobody cared.

But in the mid-1990s, with the Internet boom, Danny Rolling faced a death penalty trial for the serial murders of four University of Florida students and a community college student. Victims’ families argued that posting the crime scene photos would cause them emotional damage. The judge ruled that anyone could view the photos, but no one could copy them. Such compromises have since become standard in Florida’s high-profile murder trials.

The surveillance video of the Stoneman Douglas shooting is silent. It shows Cruz methodically moving from floor to floor in a three-story building, shooting in corridors and classrooms. Victims fall. Cruz often stops and shoots them again before moving on.

Crime scene photos show the dead where they fell, sometimes on top of or next to each other, often in convoluted shapes. Blood and sometimes brain matter splashed on floors and walls.

The autopsy photos show the damage Cruz and his bullets did. Some victims have massive head injuries. One student had his elbow blown off, another had his shoulder thrown open. Another had most of his forearm ripped off.

Yet despite their gruesome, Columbia University journalism professor Bruce Shapiro says most autopsies and crime scene photos wouldn’t have a lasting public impact because they don’t have context.

The photos and videos that have a strong effect on public opinion tell a story, said Shapiro, who runs the university’s think tank about how journalists should deal with violence.

Photos of Emmett Till’s battered body lying in his coffin after the black teenager was tortured and killed by white Mississippi supremacists in 1955. Mary Ann Vecchio screaming on the body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller after he was shot by National Guard troops in 1970. Vietnamese child Phan Thi Kim Phuc runs naked after being burned by a napalm bomb in 1972. Video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until his death in 2020 .

“They work not only because they are graphic, but because they are powerful and moving images,” said Shapiro.

And even if graphic photos and videos were published, most major newspapers, network services and television stations would be reluctant to use them. Their editors evaluate whether the public benefit of seeing an image outweighs any itchy interest – and they usually pass.

That would leave most of it just for the more salacious websites. They would also become fodder for potential mass shooters, who often seek out past killers. Cruz did; testimony showed that he spent the seven months before he attacked him doing hundreds of computer searches on the massacres.

“The images of the carnage will become part of their dark fantasy life,” said Shapiro.

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