Prosecutors take extra steps to protect witnesses from traumatic Parkland school shooting evidence
In a hallway at the Broward County Courthouse, a woman told her dog Oliver to sit.
A golden retriever, Oliver is one of the therapy dogs that have been stationed outside the courtroom where prosecutors are arguing that the Parkland school shooter deserves to die.
The lawyers prosecuting Nikolas Cruz arranged for the dogs to be there because they knew it would be a difficult trial to sit through.
In their opening argument alone, prosecutors spent an hour retracing the steps of the shooter — from a threatening video he made days before, to the slurpee drink he purchased just minutes after killing 17 people. Parents packed the benches of the courtroom on July 18, as the death-penalty phase trial began. They listened as head prosecutor Mike Satz described how each of their children was murdered.
Lawyers realized it was going to be worse than they had even imagined, though, when two former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students took the witness stand on that first day. Following some especially difficult moments during their testimonies, the judge and lawyers began taking extra steps to protect the mental health of the people in the courtroom.
AN IMPOSSIBLE FIRST DAY
Danielle Gilbert was in room 1213 when the shooting happened.
“We were just sitting, kind of like sitting ducks. We had no way to protect ourselves, no way to stand up for ourselves," she told the court on the first day of testimony.
Jurors watched cell phone videos Gilbert had taken at school during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre. Monitors that face the press and the public were turned off, but the sound was audible to everyone in the courtroom.
In the video, students are heard whispering to each other as the shooter fires into classroom 1213 and 1214, the gunshots sounding like explosions.
Gilbert, who was on the witness stand, held her hands over her mouth and cried as the video played. Some parents of the victims left the room. Some curled up in their spouses' chests, and others covered their ears in agony.
When her testimony ended, Gilbert walked out of the courtroom crying, held by her family.
Right after that, another former student, Dylan Kraemer, sat on the stand as the court showed videos he filmed. His videos did play on the monitors facing the public. It’s unclear if that was intentional or a mistake.
From the section where victims' families were sitting, a woman yelled: “Turn it off!"
A court employee did turn it off. Then the judge and lawyers went into a sidebar conversation for seven minutes, and Kraemer was dismissed.
The judge plays white noise during these conversations, so it’s unclear what they said. But since those testimonies, there's been a marked change in the proceedings: The court has taken steps to make it a little easier for people on the witness stand.
HEIGHTENED CONSIDERATION FOR TRAUMA VICTIMS
As the trial moved forward, prosecutors began allowing survivors of the shooting to leave the room before showing graphic videos.
For example, Ashley Baez, another former student and survivor of the shooting, testified on the third day of the trial. She was shot through both legs and needed four surgeries to recover.
After Baez identified herself in a surveillance video, prosecutors stopped the video.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to continue the video that you have just begun watching, but we excuse the witness," Baez, Judge Elizabeth Scherer told jurors, so she wouldn't have to "watch herself being injured."
The trial has reawakened the trauma of the 2018 tragedy not only for those who have to sit through the proceedings but also for others in the community who were affected, directly or indirectly.
Rebecca Jarquin runs Eagles Haven, a wellness center in Coral Springs established specifically to serve former students and the rest of the community affected by the shooting.
Since the trial started, more people have been seeking the center's free wellness services, Jarquin said. Those include yoga, meditation and support groups.
“Any kind of thing that is going to reactivate trauma is going to cause a reopening of the wound, and it is going to cause symptoms to increase,” Jarquin said.
“We are here to support, as Eagles Haven, to support the victims' families, the survivors and the community impacted," she said.
Jarquin, the victims' families and others involved in the trial have avoided speaking about it in detail, because they worry they could say something that would cause a mistrial.
Some, though, have spoken out on social media about the experience.
Fred Guttenberg’s daughter Jaime died in the shooting. On Twitter, he called the trial’s first week "long, terrible and gut-wrenching."
Max Schachter, whose son Alex was also killed, tweeted that it had been the worst week of his life since Alex’s funeral.
Here is a list of mental health resources.
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