FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Peter Wang’s mother has four tattoos honoring her 15-year-old son, one tattooed on Feb. 14 each year since he was killed. Carmen Schentrup’s parents find sleep elusive. Nicholas Dworet’s mother hesitates whenever someone asks her, “How many children do you have?”
Joaquin Oliver’s mother can’t bear to join relatives for family celebrations because her son is gone. Jaime Guttenberg’s mother finds it impossible to watch her beloved Florida Gators play football, as they were also her daughter’s favorite team. Gina Montalto’s father struggles with his marriage, strained by the loss of his daughter.
One by one, relatives and friends of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stood in court this week and told a jury the depth of their despair since the loss of their lives. loved ones shot four years ago on Valentine’s Day. Over four days of deeply moving testimonies, they shared painful and intimate details that laid bare how their inner lives remain shattered and how massacres like Parkland leave families with years of unresolved grief.
“I have a box over my heart with a lid so tightly shut, trying to keep all my emotions in check,” said Linda Beigel Schulman, who lost her son, geography teacher Scott J. Beigel. “But today, I’m taking the lid off this box.”
The harrowing testimony ended Thursday after the jury deciding the fate of shooter Nikolas Cruz visited the school building where the mass shooting took place. Prosecutors left the crime scene viewing, an extremely rare and visceral event in a criminal trial, for the final day of their nearly three-week presentation and closed their case.
What the 12 jurors and 10 alternates saw inside Building 12 of Stoneman Douglas High, fenced and unused since the day of filming, was a moment frozen in time, a joyous celebration interrupted by a murderous rampage. Bullet holes pierced the doors and walls. Pieces of broken glass crunched under their feet. Laptops remained open, classroom work incomplete. Dried rose petals were strewn across the bloodstained floors.
In an unfinished English class assignment, one student wrote, “We go to school every day of the week and take everything for granted. We cry and complain without knowing how lucky we are to be able to learn. A second-story hallway featured a James Dean quote: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
The crime scene tour capped off 12 days of often gruesome autopsy video and evidence in an agonizing trial in which the jury will decide whether Mr. Cruz, 23, who pleaded guilty, should be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The defense is due to begin closing arguments on August 22. The judge will first hold a non-jury hearing to decide whether defense attorneys can use a map of Mr. Cruz’s brain as evidence of the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Before hearing from the families and loved ones of the victims, the jury heard from 17 survivors injured in the shooting about how they suffered their injuries and what lingering effects remained after being hit by high-velocity gunfire. Several still have shrapnel in their bodies.
Benjamin Wikander’s radial nerve has been so damaged that he still has to wear an arm splint. Maddy Wilford struggles to breathe with her right lung. Sam Fuentes suffers from chronic pain and spasms in his legs and no longer has the same range of motion as before.
But the courtroom may have been darker as parents, siblings, grandparents and friends struggled to stay calm as they remembered their loved ones and described life without them. They frequently searched for handkerchiefs. An usher offered them water.
“I can do it,” said Tori Gonzalez, Joaquin Oliver’s girlfriend, taking a deep breath on the witness stand. A juror cried when she called Joaquin her soul mate.
“I lost innocence,” she said of the shooting. “I lost purity. I lost the love letters he wrote for me in that fourth period creative writing class.
Many relatives have said they have not been able to celebrate birthdays and holidays since the shooting. Peter Wang’s family no longer meets for Chinese New Year. Luke Hoyer’s mother called Christmas almost unbearable. Helena Ramsay was killed on her father’s birthday.
Families lamented that they would never see their children graduate from high school or college. Never walk them down the aisle. Never rejoice in having children of their own.
“She never took her braces off,” said Meghan Petty, Alaina Petty’s sister. “She never had her first kiss.”
Parents and spouses described their homes as intolerably quiet. “The night no longer brings privacy and comfort,” said Debra Hixon, wife of school athletic director Chris Hixon, “just the volume of silence.”
His son Corey Hixon, who has Kabuki Syndrome, a rare genetic condition, simply said of his father, “I miss him!”
Some people were angry. Alyssa Alhadeff’s father, Dr Ilan Alhadeff, repeatedly cried through tears, “This is not normal!” He said his wife “occasionally sprays Alyssa’s perfume just to try and smell her.”
“She even sleeps with Alyssa’s blanket, four years later,” he added.
Some parents find it difficult to work. Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg, who became a gun control activist, said he was unable to hold a normal job and that his public crusade “made life harder for my wife and more difficult for my son, and for that I am sorry.”
“It broke me,” he said.
The shooting changed her relationship with her son, who was supposed to be waiting for Jaime and driving her home after school that day. Instead, once Mr. Guttenberg learned of the gunshots, he told his son to flee.
“He struggles with the reality that he couldn’t save his sister, and he wishes it was him,” he said. “He’s mad at me for convincing him to run away.”
As the victims spoke, many people in the courtroom gallery cried. Several defense attorneys did the same.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.