FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Elizabeth Stout was a victim of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but you won’t hear her name called out on Wednesday when the confessed gunman pleads guilty for his crimes.
There are dozens more like her. The shots from Nikolas Cruz’s AR-15-style rifle rang in their ears. They cowered in genuine fear for their lives. They stepped over and past the lifeless bodies of their friends, their classmates, their teachers. But because their skin was never pierced by a bullet, they will never see Cruz punished for what he did to them.
And they will never get a say in his fate.
Now 21 and a senior at the University of Florida, Stout, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, is among dozens of plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits against the school district and others for failing to prevent the tragedy. Civil suits are the only means by which the unwounded victims of Parkland have standing, where they can be recognized as people who genuinely suffered from the actions of Cruz.
Cruz is scheduled to walk into a courtroom Wednesday morning and plead guilty 34 times — half to account for the people he murdered on Feb. 14, 2018, the other half for the people who survived the physical wounds he inflicted.
Stout and other unwounded survivors count themselves among the victims of the mass shooting, even if they are an afterthought omitted from the list of casualties. “He took so many things from me,” she said. “It changed everything I am as a person. I saw death. It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a family.”
Jay Cohen, Stout’s lawyer, represents a dozen such victims. One was the last person to find refuge in the third-floor classroom of geography teacher Scott Beigel. Had Beigel shut the door a few seconds later, he might have lived, and Cohen’s client (who declined to be named or interviewed) would not.
“She had to give them her splattered clothes as evidence,” Cohen said.
By pleading guilty, Cruz jumps ahead in the legal process to the second phase of his trial, the one in which a jury determines whether he deserves to be executed as punishment for the murders. Jurors will hear the opinions of the dead victims’ families during that phase.
Jurors won’t hear the opinions of the those who weren’t physically wounded. If they had a say in Cruz’s punishment, they would likely be divided, Cohen said. Some would favor a life sentence, others the death penalty. “It would be the same or similar split of opinions as we have existing in our country,” he said.
Stout, 17 at the time, was in a first-floor AP Psychology class in the 1200 building when the shooting started. “He shot into our classroom. I was crouched behind a desk,” Stout said. A friend looked at her, frightened. Stout tried to reassure her, but inside, she said, she was just as afraid.
“This is the day we all die,” she recalled thinking.
Stout texted family. “This is real,” she wrote, confirming the rumors they were hearing. “People in my class are bleeding.”
One of her classmates, Carmen Schentrup, never made it out of the room. Two others were shot and lived. Some classmates called 911. On her way out of the building, following the instructions of police, Stout stayed near the walls, passing within a few feet of two more bodies. Fear accompanied every step.
“No one knew where he (Cruz) was,” she recalled. “Am I going to get hit in the back? Is he on the roof? Is he above me?”
Stout, an opponent of the death penalty before the shooting, said she would oppose the sentence for Cruz. “He shouldn’t have an easy way out. Death would be something for him to look forward to,” she said. But even though no one will ask her, she trusts that the jury will know not all victims think alike.
“I think they’ll have a good idea of what we went through,” she said. “I will respect whatever decision they make.”