PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) – Ballistics experts will fire up to 139 shots Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Friday during a re-enactment of the 2018 Parkland massacre organized as part of a lawsuit accusing a sheriff’s deputy of failing to do his duty to protect victims.
While the reenactment takes place, technicians stand in front of you three-story classroom building will record the sound of the gunfire and attempt to capture what the school’s assigned deputy, Scot Peterson, heard during the six-minute attack.
The shooting, which sparked a nationwide gun control movement, ended 17 dead, 17 wounded and hundreds traumatized in South Florida community. Former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty in 2021 and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Peterson, who worked for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which was also the subject of the lawsuit, says he didn’t hear all the shots and couldn’t pinpoint where they came from because of the echoes. He came within yards of the building’s door and drew his gun, but then backed away and stood by an adjacent building for 40 minutes on the radio. He said he would have rushed into the building if he had known the shooter was there.
The families of the victims who filed the lawsuit allege that Peterson knew of Cruz’s whereabouts but backed out out of cowardice and in violation of his duty to protect their loved ones.
Peterson, 60, was acquitted in June of child neglect and other criminal injunction charges, the first US trial in history of a police officer for conduct during a campus shooting.
However, the burden of proof in a civil trial is lower. District Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips allowed the test but made it clear that she does not rule on whether the recording will be played in court. That, she said, would have to be discussed later — it was likely Peterson’s attorneys would resist the attempt. No trial date was set. The families and injured people are demanding damages of an unspecified amount.
The experts will fire live ammunition from the same locations as Cruz, using an identical AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. The balls are caught by a safety device. The school is closed during the summer holidays and students and teachers are not on campus.
David Brill, the families’ attorney who led the reenactment, did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment. Peterson’s attorney, Michael Piper, declined to comment.
Tony Montalto, president of Stand with Parkland, which represents most families, said that while Peterson was acquitted of the criminal charges, “it doesn’t mean he’s not guilty of not doing the right things.”
“He didn’t respond properly to the tragedy, he failed to enter the building and he failed to provide assistance. “The reenactment is intended to refute some of the statements made during the criminal proceedings,” Montalto said. His 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed in the shooting.
Peterson, who did not testify at his criminal trial, insisted he would have acted differently had he known where the shooter was.
“Those were my kids in there,” Peterson said in a 2018 interview with NBC’s Today Show. “I would never have sat there and butchered my children. Never.”
Robert Maher, a Montana State University professor who has studied the accuracy of shot records, said shots are much sharper in real life.
“Speakers just can’t reproduce that high-intensity, short-duration pop sound,” Maher said.
Still, he said, there are techniques that could detect the direction the shots were coming from and the reenactment should show how loud they were where Peterson was standing. That’s an important question, since the classroom building’s doors and windows were mostly closed during the shooting.
“Are they really as loud as you would expect a gunshot to be, or not loud because the building is sealed?” Maher said. “That’s probably what they can get out of rebuilding.”
Tamara Lave, a law professor at the University of Miami, said that when Judge Phillips decides whether the jury can see and hear the reenactment, she will consider whether it is “fairly and accurately” reporting what Peterson heard — but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
“It has to be close enough to be fair and to help the jury determine if he actually heard the gunshots,” Lave said.
Parkland sent out alerts to residents so they wouldn’t panic when they heard the gunshots and to help them mentally prepare. Eagles’ Haven, a community wellness center that opened after the shooting, is planning several programs Friday, including yoga, tai chi, a drum circle and meditation, as well as food so people can socialize.
“When you’re feeling triggered, it’s good to be around other people who understand what you’re going through,” said Sarah Franco, the center’s director.
Erika Felix, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies trauma in the community after mass shootings, agreed. She said the reenactment “will evoke thoughts, feelings and emotions. It will bring back memories.”
Ahead of Friday’s reenactment, two South Florida congressmen, Democrat Jared Moskowitz and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, will lead several colleagues from the School Safety and Security Caucus on a tour of the building, which has remained mostly untouched since shortly after the shooting. The floors are still covered in dried blood, books and computers still lie on desks, and the classrooms are littered with wilted Valentine’s Day flowers and deflated balloons.
They then meet with family members and the bereaved. Moskowitz is a graduate of Stoneman Douglas.
After Friday, the Broward School District will begin demolishing the building. It had been left as evidence in the Cruz and Peterson criminal cases and loomed over campus behind a chain link fence.