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State rests after jurors get rare view of bloody Parkland school massacre site

Convicted school shooter Nikolas Cruz waives right to go with them
Bullet holes visible from 1200 building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Aug. 4, 2022
Posted at 9:08 AM, Aug 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-04 18:24:45-04

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jurors in the trial of convicted 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, an extremely rare visit to an intact 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 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. 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.

Soon after, prosecutors rested their case, and Scherer dismissed jurors until the trial resumes Aug. 22.

Before dismissing them, she reminded them not to discuss the case, research the trial or return to the crime scene while court is in recess.

WATCH: Judge reminds jurors not to discuss case before dismissing them

Judge reminds jurors not to discuss Parkland shooter's trial during recess

"This applies during the entire recess, whether you are at home, whether you're at the Publix or anywhere else — taking a walk in your neighborhood, somebody may have found out that you're on the jury — you may not discuss it," she said.

Prosecutors hope the campus visit will help prove that the former 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.

Prosecutors visit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Aug. 4, 2022
Members of the prosecution team including, from left; Assistant State Attorney Steven Klinger, legal assistant Aaron Savitski, public information officer Paula McMahon, Broward County State Attorney Harold F. Pryor, Assistant State Attorney Nicole Chiappone and Assistant State Attorney Mike Satz, walk toward the entrance at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, to view the 1200 building, the crime scene where the 2018 shootings took place.

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 Cruz 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.

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.

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.

Nikolas Cruz in court after waiving right to attend tour of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Aug. 4, 2022
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is led from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., courtroom after he was sworn in and waved his right to be present at the school while the jury walks through the crime scene Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

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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 are hoping 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.

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. 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.

Court deputies exit vans used to transport jurors to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Aug. 4, 2022
Court deputies exit vans that transported jurors to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, to view the 1200 building, the crime scene where the 2018 shootings took place.

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.

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case shortly after the visit.

Watch gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial on, the WPTV app or your favorite streaming device.