FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Few Americans outside of law enforcement and government have ever seen the most graphic videos or photos…
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Few Americans, other than law enforcement and the government, have ever seen the most graphic videos or photos from the nation’s worst mass shootings — in most states, such evidence is only shown at trial, and most of those killers die. during or immediately after their attacks. They never make it to court.
That made the trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz for the 2018 killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland unusual.
Surveillance video taken during the attack, as well as crime scene and autopsy photos showing the gruesome aftermath, are being viewed by jurors on video screens and shown to a small crowd after each day of the trial as the worst US shooting ever to go to trial. a group of journalists. But they are not shown either in the gallery where parents and spouses sit, or to the general public on TV.
Some online believe that needs to change — that in order to have an informed debate about gun violence, the public needs to see mass massacres like Cruz’s caused by often high-velocity bullets fired from AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and similar weapons.
Others disagree. They say the public display of such videos and photos will add to the damage already done to the victims’ families and could lead people with mental disorders to carry out their own mass shootings. They believe that such evidence should remain closed.
Liz Dunning, vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, doesn’t believe the release of such videos and photos will have the political impact that some think. Polls show a majority of Americans already support stricter background checks on gun buyers and bans or restrictions on AR-15s and similar weapons, said Dunning, whose mother was killed by a gunman.
“Public perception is not the issue,” Dunning said. “We must ask more of the powerful.”
Because most of the worst mass shooters in the U.S. were killed by themselves or the police during or immediately after the attack, it’s rare for anyone outside the government to see such surveillance footage or police and autopsy photos. The public has not seen such evidence since the shootings in Las Vegas in 2017, Orlando in 2016, Sandy Hook in 2012, Virginia Tech in 2007, and others.
But Cruz, 23, fled after the shooting and was arrested an hour later. He pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder — his trial is set only to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. The video and photo are part of the prosecution’s case file.
Since the trial began on July 18, anyone in the courtroom watching on television has seen and heard heart-wrenching testimony from faculty and students who saw others die. They heard gunshots and screams as jurors watched cellphone video.
But if naturalistic videos and photos are provided, they are not displayed. Usually, all they hear is how forensic experts and police officers unemotionally describe what jurors see.
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 pictures of their dead children would be posted online and did not want access to the media.
Miami media attorney Thomas Jullin said in Florida that any photos and other evidence presented in court could be seen and copied by anyone before they appeared online. Newspapers didn’t print the most gruesome photos, so no one cared.
But in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was booming, Danny Rowling was on death row for the serial murders of four University of Florida students and a community college student. The families of the victims claimed that the release of crime scene photos would cause them emotional harm. The judge ruled that anyone can view the photos, but no one can copy them. Such plea deals have since become standard in Florida homicide trials.
Surveillance video of the Stoneman Douglas shooting is silent. It shows Cruz methodically moving from floor to floor in a three-story classroom building, shooting down hallways and into classrooms. Victims are falling. Cruz often stops and shoots them again before moving on.
Crime scene photos show the dead where they have fallen, sometimes on top of each other or side by side, often in contorted shapes. Blood, and sometimes brain matter, splatters on the floor and walls.
Autopsy photos show the damage caused by Cruz and his bullets. Some victims have severe head injuries. One student’s elbow was blown off, another’s shoulder was blown off. Another had most of her forearm torn off.
Yet despite their gruesomeness, Columbia University journalism professor Bruce Shapiro says most autopsies and crime scene photos won’t have a lasting public impact because they lack context.
Photos and videos that have a strong impact on public opinion tell a story, said Shapiro, who runs a university think tank on how journalists should cover violence.
Photographs of the battered body of Emmett Till lying in a coffin after the black teenager was tortured and killed by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1955. Mary Ann Vecchio cries over the body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller after he was shot by troops of the National Guards 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 he died in 2020.
“They work not just because they’re naturalistic, but because they’re powerful, moving images,” Shapiro said.
And even if the graphic photos and videos were published, most major newspapers, television channels and television stations would not choose to use them. Their editors weigh whether the public benefit of viewing the image outweighs any vested interest—and they usually pass.
This will be reserved for the most sleazy sites. They would also be fodder for would-be mass shooters, who often research past killers. Cruz did; testimony showed that in the seven months before the attack, he had conducted hundreds of computer searches about mass murder.
“Images of carnage will become part of their dark fantasy life,” Shapiro said.
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