Reenactment of Parkland school massacre on campus will be allowed as part of lawsuit against deputy

Jul 12, 2023, 10:53 AM | Updated: 3:54 pm

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The 2018 Parkland high school massacre will be reenacted twice with the firing of about 140 blanks on campus as part of families’ lawsuits against the former sheriff’s deputy they accuse of failing to stop the gunman, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips granted the motion from attorney David Brill, who says his video recorded reenactment will prove former Broward Deputy Scot Peterson knew the shooter was firing inside a three-story classroom building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, but chose not to intercede.

Phillips also granted the request by Peterson’s attorney, Michael Piper, who questioned the validity of such reenactments but said his side would also now need to conduct one. Peterson, the school’s on-campus deputy, was acquitted last month of criminal charges accusing him of inaction, but the civil case against him, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and others is governed by different laws and rules of evidence. It also has a lower standard of proof.

The judge made it clear that she was not ruling on whether she will allow the reenactments to be played for the jury at the trial, which has not been scheduled.

“That’s for another day,” Phillips said of that decision. She will have to review the reenactments’ recordings and hear arguments on whether they accurately reflect what Peterson heard.

Families of the 17 killed and 26 injured are seeking unspecified damages in lawsuits that are being tried jointly.

The judge ordered that the reenactments be conducted before the school’s summer break ends next month and that nearby residents be given sufficient warning. She wants them done on the same or consecutive days.

The reenactments would be based on school surveillance videos of the massacre that show second-by-second the actions and locations of Peterson and shooter Nikolas Cruz during the six-minute attack.

Reenactors playing Cruz would fire nearly 140 blanks from guns identical to the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle he used from the same spots on each floor. The school’s fire alarms would sound at the same moments they did during the shooting.

Meanwhile, reenactors playing Peterson and wearing a recording device would duplicate his actions as he rode on a golf cart from his office about 100 yards (90 meters) from the classroom building. Peterson was dropped off about 10 yards (nine meters) from the building about two minutes after the shooting began.

Peterson went toward a door and drew his handgun but then backed away, taking cover next to a neighboring building. He remained there for 40 minutes, long after the shooting ended and other law enforcement officers went inside, making radio calls to dispatchers and other deputies.

The families and injured insist he could have gone inside and shot Cruz or at least distracted him, saving the six killed and four wounded after he arrived at the building.

Peterson, 60, insists that echoes prevented him from pinpointing where the shots were coming from and that he would have charged inside if he had known Cruz’s location. He retired shortly after the shooting, but was then retroactively fired.

Brill told the judge he wants to reenact the shooting because “we don’t want to leave anything to chance and allow Peterson to escape justice in this civil case like he did in the criminal one.”

He said the reenactment will provide “similarly sufficient evidence” that Peterson knew shots were coming from the building, meaning he should have looked through the door — something Brill believes he did but has lied about.

“He could hear the cacophony of the gun discharge of a …. rifle that was about 50 yards (40 meters) from his position,” Brill said. Peterson, if he looked, would have seen “deceased people, blood, the shooter, the shooter’s jacket that he threw on the floor.”

Piper said he doesn’t believe the reenactments will accurately depict what Peterson heard. He said blanks don’t sound exactly like bullets and it is impossible to accurately recreate the direction and angle of Cruz’s gun. There were also hundreds of people in the building, others in the area and cars in the parking lot that would muffle and deflect sounds.

“It is going to be impossible for this to be reliable … evidence,” Piper said. “There are so many variables that cannot be accounted for.”

He said the best evidence will be witness testimony about what they heard. Some witnesses at Peterson’s criminal trial testified they knew where the shots were coming from, while others said they were unsure or incorrect about the shooter’s location.

It is unclear whether the reenactments will delay the school district’s plan to demolish the classroom building, which has been locked behind a chain-link barrier as evidence in the Cruz and Peterson criminal cases while the rest of the campus reopened to students in 2018. The jury in Cruz’s penalty trial last year toured the building, but the judge in Peterson’s trial rejected a prosecution motion to have his jury do the same.

Victims’ families, the wounded and teachers have been given the opportunity over the last week to tour the building, if they chose.

Cruz, 24 and a former Stoneman Douglas student, received a life sentence last year after his jury could not unanimously agree that he deserved the death penalty.

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Reenactment of Parkland school massacre on campus will be allowed as part of lawsuit against deputy