Parkland school shooter trial sparks debate over public sharing of graphic evidence

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The Parkland school shooter’s death sentence trial is rare. And the same goes for the evidence that jurors see.

They must have looked at autopsy photos of murdered children. And they even visited the crime scene, where dried blood is still piling up on the hallway floors almost five years later.

Would showing graphic evidence of violence spur leaders to action? This is not a new issue, but it is once again part of the national debate about how to prevent gun violence.

Tony Montalto lost his daughter Gina that day. She was 14 years old.

“I strongly believe that I would rather remember my daughter in life as full of life, the way she was there for our family, as opposed to the way she died,” he said.

Montalto doesn’t believe public opinion would change if people saw the crime scene photos at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“I think it would be much more impactful to force people to listen to the testimony that was given in court regarding the autopsy results,” he said.

Autopsies were detailed in court for each of the 17 victims.

Mike Stocker / Sentinel of the South Florida Sun

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South Florida Sun Sentinel

Jennifer and Tony Montalto listen as Palm Beach County Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Marlon Osbourne testify about the gunshot wounds their daughter Gina Montalto suffered in the mass shooting. Nikolas Cruz stands trial in the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, July 26, 2022. Cruz previously pleaded guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in from the 2018 shooting. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

One of the bullets that killed Gina passed through her pericardium, the sac that holds the heart, according to Dr. Marlon Osbourne.

During Osbourne’s testimony, photos were shown to jurors, attorneys and the judge. Relatives of the victims and other people present are not obliged to see these photos, and most do not want to. A few reporters are allowed to see graphic evidence at the end of each day and are only allowed to take notes with pen and paper.

Stefan Schmitt is a project manager at the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University.

“Using other people’s misery for political ends, even though the political end can be noble, can’t it? – it’s unethical,” he said.

Showing evidence to jurors, Schmitt said, is critical for prosecutors.

“It really highlights the brutality of using these weapons,” he said. “When these weapons are designed to kill, it doesn’t matter where they hit you.”

Schmitt has worked with the United Nations to document war crimes around the world.

While he disagrees with using photos of victims to prove a point, he acknowledges that there are historical examples of when it was powerful.

He presented the photo of Vietnamese child Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked after being burned by a napalm bomb in 1972.

“His story told the story of Vietnam. If this image had not been published, there would have been far less protest against the inherent inhumanity of this war or any other war.

Lorna Veraldi is a lawyer and retired professor of media law and ethics at CRF. She argued that seeing graphic evidence could change people’s minds.

“The video of the murder of George Floyd, which was a very difficult video to watch, I think it really had an impact in helping people understand what police brutality and misconduct is,” he said. she declared.

Veraldi said journalists must weigh the need to inform the public about crimes against the potential harm it could do to a victim’s family.

Jennifer Montalto, with her husband, Tony, left, gives her victim impact statement during the penalty phase of the trial of high school shooter Marjory Stoneman Douglas Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday August 3, 2022. Les MontaltoÕs daughter, Gina, was killed in the 2018 shooting. Cruz previously pleaded guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shooting. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Amy Beth Bennett / Sentinel of the South Florida Sun

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South Florida Sun Sentinel

Jennifer Montalto, with her husband, Tony, left, gives her victim impact statement during the penalty phase of the trial of high school shooter Marjory Stoneman Douglas Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday August 3, 2022. Les MontaltoÕs daughter, Gina, was killed in the 2018 shooting. Cruz previously pleaded guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shooting. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Ultimately, she is in favor of the press being able to make the decision to publish graphic evidence.

“People don’t really understand in the abstract like they understand in specific concrete details,” she said. “It’s one thing to talk about the statistics, for example, of gun violence. It’s another thing to show people the real consequences of that.

In Florida, autopsy photos are exempt from public records law. The same goes for police body camera footage as officers respond to a mass shooting. This law was passed a year after the Parkland shootings.

Days after the 2018 shooting, several state lawmakers roamed the halls and classrooms of Building 1200. This helped change gun laws in Florida.

For Tony Montalto, the detailed descriptions of the carnage presented at the trial should be enough to change his mind.

He just doesn’t want his daughter to be remembered as a victim. Instead, he chooses to remember who she was in life.

“Gina loved volunteering, especially if it involved helping children. She was also a Girl Scout and active in our local church,” he told the court as he read his victim impact statement.

“Gina was known to everyone as an avid reader,” he said. “One of his favorite quotes was, ‘I don’t choose one of your paths. I do mine. She was indeed a very independent girl. Gina was not a spectator in her life. She was a dynamic participant.”

Montalto’s wife, Jennifer, also read a victim impact statement during the trial, as did the families of the 16 other people killed that day.

The Montaltos formed Stand With Parkland to advocate for public safety reforms focused on keeping children and staff safe at school.



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