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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera

US judge approves reenactment of deadly 2018 Parkland shooting

Former school resource officer Scot Peterson reacts to being found not guilty to criminal charges in June [File: Amy Beth Bennett, pool/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]

A Florida judge has given the green light for reenactments to take place at the site of a 2018 school shooting in the United States that left 14 students and three staff members dead.

Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips approved the motion on Wednesday, as part of a civil case against a former sheriff’s deputy accused of inaction during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The school building where the bloodshed took place had been locked up for much of the last five years.

But that changed earlier this month, as authorities opened the building once more for survivors and victims’ families to take tours of the facility, as part of their grieving process.

The building had been sealed, in part, to preserve evidence for the criminal cases against the former deputy, Scot Peterson, and the attacker, Nikolas Cruz.

Jurors toured the crime scene last August as they considered sentencing in Cruz’s case. Cruz, 24, had pleaded guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder — but the jury ultimately declined the death penalty, instead sentencing him to life without parole.

Peterson, meanwhile, was acquitted last month of child neglect, perjury and culpable negligence for his alleged failure to intervene in Cruz’s attack.

But the former sheriff’s deputy now faces a civil suit brought by some of the victims’ families, maintaining that Peterson should have done more to stop the violence. Civil cases have a lower standard of proof than criminal ones.

When the gunfire erupted on February 14, 2018, Peterson — the school’s resource officer — quickly arrived on the scene.

But surveillance footage shows him drawing his gun, then retreating to a nearby building. He would stay there for the next 40 minutes.

Peterson has since said that he was not sure where the gunfire was coming from, something defence witnesses have testified to. He has also pointed out that he used his radio during the 40 minutes to call for law enforcement and implement a “code red” lockdown of the school.

In a media appearance on the Today Show in 2018, Peterson also expressed remorse for the events of that day.

“Those were my kids in there. I never would’ve sat there and let my kids get slaughtered,” he told Today host Savannah Guthrie.

The crime scene still contains bloodstains on the floor where the shootings occurred, as well as toppled desks, broken glass and the remnants of the Valentine’s Day festivities unfolding that day.

While the judge’s decision on Wednesday allows for reenactments to occur, she has not yet said whether those reenactments will be played in court. “That’s for another day,” Judge Phillips said.

Lawyer David Brill made the initial request for the reenactment, on behalf of the plaintiffs in the suit. He argued that re-staging the shooting will show jurors that Peterson could have seen the carnage unfolding and heard the gunshots from his position.

“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,” Brill said.

Peterson’s lawyer, Michael Piper, opposed the reenactments, saying they would not be “reliable” as evidence.

“There are so many variables that cannot be accounted for,” Piper said.

Nevertheless, Piper argued that, if the plaintiffs were allowed to reenact the scene, the defendant’s legal team should too.

The judge has called for the reenactments to take place on or around the same dates, with nearby residents given ample warning. The school building where the shooting took place is scheduled to be demolished at a later date.

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