FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Few Americans outside of law enforcement and government ever see the most graphic videos or photos of the nation’s worst mass shootings — in most states, such evidence is shown only at trial, and most such killers they die during or immediately after their attacks. They never make it to court.
That made the trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, unusual.
As the worst mass shooting in the US until the trial, surveillance videos taken of his attack and crime scene and autopsy photos showing his horrific aftermath are shown to jurors on shielded video screens and, after each day meeting, appear to a small group of journalists. But they are not shown to the gallery, where parents and spouses sit, or to the general public watching on television.
Some online think that needs to change — that in order to have an informed debate about gun violence, the public needs to see the carnage of mass shooters like Cruz, often with high-velocity bullets fired from AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and the like arms.
Others disagree. They say the public display of such videos and photos would add to the damage victims’ families are already enduring and could tempt some who are mentally disturbed to carry out their own mass shootings. They believe such evidence should remain sealed.
Liz Dunning, vice president at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, doesn’t think the release of such videos and photos would have the political impact that some believe. Polls show most Americans already support stronger 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 is not the issue,” Dunning said. “We should be asking more of the powerful.”
Since most of the worst shooters in the US were killed by themselves or the police during or immediately after their attack, it is rare for anyone outside the government to see such surveillance video or police and autopsy photos. The public hasn’t seen such evidence since the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, Orlando in 2016, Sandy Hook in 2012, Virginia Tech in 2007 and others.
But Cruz, 23, fled after being shot 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 life without parole. The videos and photos are part of the prosecution’s case.
Since the trial began on July 18, everyone in the courtroom watching on television has seen and heard heartbreaking testimony from teachers and students who saw others die. They have heard the gunshots and screams as jurors watched cellphone video.
But when video and photo graphics are presented, they are not displayed. Usually, they only hear coroners and police officers give 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 pictures of their dead children would be posted online and did not want media access.
Miami media attorney Thomas Julin said in pre-internet Florida, any photos or other evidence presented at trial could be seen and copied by anyone. Newspapers didn’t print the most gruesome photos, so no one bothered.
But in the mid-1990s, as the Internet boomed, Dannii Rowling faced a death penalty trial for the serial murders of four University of Florida students and a community college student. The families of the victims argued that publishing crime scene photos would cause them emotional harm. The judge ruled that anyone could see the photos, but no one could copy them. Such settlements have since become standard in high-profile Florida murder trials.
Surveillance video of the Stoneman Douglas shooting is silent. It shows Cruise methodically moving from floor to floor in a three-story classroom building, tearing down hallways and classrooms. Victims fall. Cruz often stops and shoots them again before moving on.
Crime scene photos show the dead lying there, sometimes on top of or next to each other, often in distorted shapes. Blood and sometimes brain matter is splattered on floors and walls.
Autopsy photos show the damage done by Cruz and his bullets. Some victims have massive head wounds. One student’s elbow was cut off, while another’s shoulder was cut open. Another had most of her forearm removed.
But despite their horror, Columbia University journalism professor Bruce Shapiro says most autopsy and crime scene photos would have no lasting public impact because they lack context.
Photos and videos that have a powerful effect on public opinion tell a story, said Shapiro, who runs the university’s think tank on how journalists should cover violence.
The photographs of the battered body of Emmett Till lying in his casket after the black teenager was tortured and killed by white Mississippi vigilantes in 1955. Mary Ann Vecchio screams over the body of Kent student Jeffrey Miller after he was shot by National Guard troops in Vietnam70 Phan Thi Kim Phuc runs naked after being burned by a napalm bomb in 1972. The video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died in 2020.
“They work not just because they’re graphic, but because they’re powerful, poignant images,” Shapiro said.
And even if the graphic photos and videos were released, most major newspapers, cable services and television stations would be reluctant to use them. Their editors weigh whether the public benefit of seeing an image outweighs any vital interest — and they usually pass.
That would leave most for only the most raunchy sites. They would also become fodder for potential mass shooters, who often investigate past killers. Cruz did. Testimony showed he spent the seven months before his attack doing hundreds of computer searches about committing massacres.
“Images of carnage will become part of their dark fantasy life,” Shapiro said.