Sometime in the next few weeks, someone carrying an assault-style rifle — loaded with blank rounds instead of live ammunition — will re-enact how a gunman carried out a deadly mass shooting five years ago at a Florida high school. A judge decided on Wednesday to allow the re-enactment as part of a civil suit.
Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips of the Broward County Circuit Court granted the unusual request from the families of four of the 17 people who were killed and one of the 17 injured survivors of the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
The judge cited legal precedent in allowing the plaintiffs’ motion for the re-enactment to take place, but she left open the question of whether any video or audio recordings of the re-enactment would be admissible at trial, which will be litigated at a future date.
The plaintiffs sought the re-enactment as part of their civil case against Scot Peterson, the Broward County sheriff’s deputy who was assigned to the school. Other civil cases they have brought against the Justice Department, over how it handled tips to the F.B.I. warning about the gunman, and against the Broward County school district resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements two years ago.
A jury acquitted Mr. Peterson in June of child neglect and other criminal charges stemming from his failure to rush into the school building where the shooting took place, known as the 1200 building. His defense lawyers argued that Mr. Peterson, the only armed school resource officer on the campus, had not been sure of where the gunshots were coming from or how many shooters there were.
David W. Brill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the civil case, said in a virtual court hearing on Wednesday that a re-enactment would help show that Mr. Peterson “could and did hear the gunshots, and he could and did derive where they were coming from.”
Michael Piper, a lawyer for Mr. Peterson, countered that a re-enactment could not account for all of the variables that occurred during the actual shooting. “Blanks do not sound anything like live rounds,” he said, calling any resulting video from the re-enactment merely a “movie.”
He also argued that if the plaintiffs were allowed to conduct a re-enactment with their experts, then the defense should be allowed to conduct a second re-enactment with its own experts. Judge Phillips agreed, but urged the two sides to coordinate their efforts so that the re-enactments could happen on the same day or consecutive days.
The timing may be tight: The 1200 building, fenced off and left unused since the day of the shooting, has been slated for demolition once the criminal trials were concluded. The gunman pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to life in prison. Now that Mr. Peterson’s criminal trial is over as well, the Broward County public school district wants to tear down the building this summer, before students return for classes in the fall.
The 1200 building has remained standing as if frozen in time, pocked with bullet holes and stained inside with blood. During the gunman’s sentencing trial, a criminal court judge granted prosecutors’ request for jurors to tour the crime scene, an exceedingly rare occurrence. During Mr. Peterson’s trial, a different judge decided not to allow a similar tour.
Some victims’ families have also asked to walk through the building as a way of seeking closure. After Mr. Peterson’s trial ended, prosecutors escorted those families inside the building in small groups.
On Wednesday, Judge Phillips said she did not want the re-enactment or re-enactments to slow down the demolition plans for the building or cause the Parkland community further trauma. The families of all the victims signed off on the plaintiffs’ request, and a city commissioner said that public officials would give neighbors of the school grounds as much advance notice as possible about any re-enactment, which is likely to attract media attention and require road closures.
“I’m trying to recognize the residents of the city,” Judge Phillips said, “and not do this all for naught.”