A year after an attacker in a Parkland, Fla., high school gunned down 17 students and faculty members and wounded 17 others, the mass shooting — and what happened before and after it — have become the focus of multiple inquiries, including an ongoing criminal case and statewide investigations.
This web of examinations, which include a death penalty case against the confessed shooter and probes looking at the actions of law enforcement and school officials, is a broad response to a tragedy marked by repeated missteps. One investigation already faulted law enforcement officers and school officials, while another is still looking at the police response. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) this week called for a new probe to be carried out by a grand jury looking at Parkland as well as broader school-security issues.
The inquiries are likely to continue playing out for months — and possibly years — as Florida continues to reckon with the horrors unleashed inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
One of the explorations looking into what happened began soon after the shooting. Police quickly arrested Nikolas Cruz, the former student who confessed to the attack. He was indicted on 34 counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder, and, not long after, prosecutors announced plans to seek a death sentence.
The court case against Cruz represents something unusual following an attack on the scale of Parkland: a trial for a suspect charged in a mass shooting, proceedings that could provide an extended, emotional look at the Valentine’s Day carnage. Cruz’s attorneys, who acknowledge that he was the attacker, have offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, which prosecutors have not accepted. Both sides said Thursday that they still expect the case to proceed to trial.
In perhaps the most comparable case, a gunman who killed a dozen people inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012 ultimately faced trial. Three years passed between the movie theater massacre and the jury’s decision to find him guilty on all counts during proceedings that lasted several months in 2015. He was sentenced to life in prison rather than the death sentence prosecutors sought. That same year, a self-avowed white supremacist killed nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C.; he was convicted in a federal case about a year and a half later and sentenced to death.
Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender representing Cruz, said the trial in South Florida is “a long way off,” noting that discovery filings have listed more than 900 witnesses.
Finkelstein, who has said it would be wrong for the state to execute Cruz after authorities missed so many warning signs about him before the shooting, wrote in an email Thursday that a “trial whenever it happens will be a very long ordeal and very painful.” He added that a death sentence for Cruz would be followed by “decades of appeals” and reiterated his previous stance that a guilty plea would “end the painful and arduous legal journey immediately.”
Prosecutors have rebuffed the plea offers — even before announcing they would seek Cruz’s execution. Michael J. Satz, state attorney for Broward County, called the massacre “the type of case the death penalty was designed for.” A spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office said Thursday that there has been no change to that posture.
Beyond the court case, other investigations have looked at what happened at Stoneman Douglas as well as how authorities responded to numerous red flags related to Cruz. He had repeatedly drawn the attention of officials on the local, state and federal level, but none of the encounters or warnings — including concerns about his mental state and specific tips to the FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office describing him as a threat to a school — led to actions that might have prevented the attack.
A statewide panel known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission released a report detailing numerous problems with the school’s handling of security as well as the actions and inaction of law enforcement. The commission criticized the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which had several contacts with Cruz before the shooting, for issues with its training and how deputies responded to the gunfire inside the school.
Former Broward County sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson was widely condemned for not rushing into the building to confront the shooter despite arriving there within two minutes of the first gunshots. Peterson, who had been assigned to the school and was shown on video surveillance recordings standing outside the building where the shootings were underway, later said he did not know where the gunfire was coming from, but the commission said he “was derelict in his duty … and fled to a position of personal safety while Cruz shot and killed [school] students and staff.”
The commission faulted other law enforcement officials as well. Multiple law enforcement officers failed to respond appropriately to what happened, according to the panel, including several who were described as not rushing inside “while shots were being fired.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting its own investigation into the law enforcement response to the shooting, looking at how the various agencies reacted to the attack. That probe is ongoing.
The public safety commission also found that Stoneman Douglas had numerous security lapses, such as unlocked entrances and classrooms where students were killed with no way to hide from view inside those rooms. A spokeswoman for the school system has said officials are looking at the commission’s findings “to deepen our understanding of what happened, who was responsible and what might have been done differently.”
DeSantis cited the commission’s report in announcing his decision last month to suspend Scott Israel, the elected Broward County sheriff. Israel argued that he was ousted for political reasons and said, “There was no wrongdoing on my part.”
On Wednesday, one day before the first anniversary of the attack, DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury, which he said would be distinct from the commission because of its broad subpoena power.
“They will be able to compel witnesses, they will be able to compel documents in a way that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas commission was just not able to do,” he said during a briefing Wednesday. He added that a statewide grand jury “has a lot of teeth.”
In his petition asking the court to impanel a grand jury based in Broward County, DeSantis wrote that the investigation would look into issues relating to the Parkland attack and beyond, saying he had been told "there is a need to examine the crimes and wrongs that precipitated the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting and that even now result in unsafe schools across the state.”
He also said the grand jury should look into whether students are being placed at risk because of failures by school officials to follow school-safety laws and whether public authorities are “shirking responsibility.”