FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Peter Wang’s mother has four tattoos commemorating her 15-year-old son, one inked on February 14 every year since he was murdered. Carmen Schentrup’s parents find sleep elusive. Nicholas Dworet’s mother hesitates every time someone asks her, “How many children do you have?”
Joaquin Oliver’s mother can’t bear to go to family gatherings with family because her son is gone. Jaime Guttenberg’s mother finds it impossible to watch her beloved Florida Gators play football because they were her daughter’s favorite team too. Gina Montalto’s father struggles with his marriage, strained by the loss of his daughter.
One by one, the relatives and friends of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, took their stand in court this week, revealing to a jury the depths of their despair since they killed their loved ones. years by gunfire. ago on Valentine’s Day. Over four days of deeply emotional testimony, they shared painful and intimate details that exposed 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 that’s so tightly closed, trying to control all my emotions,” said Linda Beigel Schulman, who lost her geography teacher son Scott J. Beigel. “But today I’m taking the lid off that box.”
The heartbreaking testimony ended Thursday after the jury that decided the fate of the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, toured the school building where the mass shooting took place. Prosecutors left the crime scene viewing, an extraordinarily rare and visceral event in a criminal trial, for the last day of their nearly three-week presentation and rested their case.
What the 12 jurors and 10 deputies saw in Building 12 of Stoneman Douglas High, which has been gated and unused since the day of the shooting, was a moment frozen in time, a joyful holiday punctuated by a deadly disaster. Bullet holes pierced the doors and walls. Pieces of broken glass crunched under their feet. Laptops were left open, classwork incomplete. Dried rose petals were scattered on floors caked with blood.
In an unfinished English assignment, a student had written: ‘We go to school every day of the week and we take it all for granted. We cry and complain without knowing how lucky we are to learn.” A second floor hallway contained a quote from James Dean: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
The crime scene visit covered 12 days of often gruesome video and autopsy evidence in a painful trial in which the jury will decide whether Mr Cruz, 23, who has pleaded guilty, should be sentenced to death or life in prison with no possibility of punishment. conditional release. The defense will begin its case on August 22. The judge will first hold a hearing without a jury 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 the victims’ families and relatives, the jury listened to 17 survivors who were injured in the shooting, explain how they sustained their injuries and the lingering consequences of being hit with high-velocity gunshots. Several still have pieces of shrapnel in their bodies.
Benjamin Wikander’s radial nerve was so damaged that he still has to wear an arm brace. Maddy Wilford has trouble breathing with her right lung. Sam Fuentes suffers from chronic pain and spasms in her legs and does not have the same range of motion as before.
But the courtroom felt perhaps the most gloomy as parents, siblings, grandparents and friends found it difficult to stay calm when remembering their loved ones and describing life without them. They often reached for tissues. A bailiff offered them water.
“I can do this,” Tori Gonzalez, Joaquin Oliver’s girlfriend, said as she took a deep breath on the witness stand. A judge cried when she called Joaquin her soul mate.
“I lost my innocence,” she said of the shooting. “I lost the purity. I lost the love letters he wrote for me in that creative writing class in the fourth term.’
Many family members said they have been unable to celebrate birthdays and holidays since the shooting. Peter Wang’s family no longer gathers for Chinese New Year. Luke Hoyer’s mother called Christmas almost unbearable. Helena Ramsay was murdered on her father’s birthday.
Families complained that they would never see their children graduate from high school or college. Never let them walk down the aisle. Never rejoice in the fact that they have children of their own.
“She never took off her braces,” said Meghan Petty, Alaina Petty’s sister. “She never got her first kiss.”
Parents and spouses described their homes as unbearably quiet. “The night no longer brings intimacy and comfort,” said Debra Hixon, wife of Chris Hixon, the school’s athletic director, “just the loudness of the silence.”
Her son Corey Hixon, who has Kabuki syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, simply said of his father, “I miss him!”
Some people were angry. Alyssa Alhadeff’s father, Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, cried repeatedly through tears: “This is not normal!” He said his wife “occasionally sprays Alyssa’s perfume to try and smell her.”
“She even sleeps with Alyssa’s blanket, four years later,” he added.
Some parents have trouble working. Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg-turned-gun control activist, said he has been unable to keep a normal job and that his public crusade has “made life harder for my wife and for my son, which is why I I’m sorry.”
“This broke me,” he said.
The shooting changed his relationship with his son, who had to wait for Jaime and take her home after school that day. Instead, when he heard of the gunfire, Mr. Guttenberg told his son to run.
“He struggles with the reality that he couldn’t save his sister, and he wishes he were,” he said. “He’s angry that I’m persuading him to run.”
As victim after victim spoke, many people cried in the courtroom. So did several defense attorneys.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs has reported.