Parkland shooting trial: Jurors visit shooting site as state rests its case

The visit, Judge Elizabeth Scherer explained to jurors Wednesday, was meant to help them analyze the evidence presented so far in the trial of Nikolas Cruz, who faces either the death penalty or life in prison after pleading guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.

Pool footage taken from outside the building Thursday showed it remained fenced off, hidden in part behind banners that carried the high school’s name and the emblem of its eagle mascot. The judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys were also seen entering the building.

The jury view Thursday was followed by several more victim impact statements in the afternoon — before the state rested its case.

Patricia Oliver, mother of victim Joaquin Oliver, told CNN that she hoped “emotions” would be the jurors’ main takeaway after visiting the building Thursday, which would have been her son’s 22nd birthday. The building was closed to preserve it for the trial. Officials have said it will be torn down.

“We were, of course, knowing that this moment will arrive. It’s a moment that is part of a process,” said Manuel Oliver, Joaquin’s father, now an activist and organizer aiming to address gun violence. “The most important thing here is what happened to our son, the way he suffered that day and what are we capable of doing after that. That’s what really matters here.”
Court deputies exit vans that transported jurors to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Thursday to view the 1200 building, the crime scene where the 2018 shooting took place.

Jurors were instructed Wednesday to “avoid touching, manipulating or moving anything.” The judge also told them to explore the scene on their own and at their own pace, moving as a group from floor to floor. Cruz did not attend the visit, telling the judge Thursday morning in response to her questioning that it was his decision not to go.

“Nothing will be explained or pointed out to you,” the judge’s instructions said. Jurors were also told to avoid speaking to anyone until the viewing was complete.

Jurors were not allowed to have a smartphone, smartwatch or any type of camera, during the viewing. In court, attorneys encouraged the judge to ask jurors to wear closed-toe shoes because they could encounter glass on the floor.

The current phase of the trial is to determine Cruz’s sentence: Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, while Cruz’s defense attorneys are asking the jury for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. To recommend a death sentence, jurors must be unanimous. If they do so, the judge could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life instead.

Patricia Oliver is comforted as a witness testifies about her son's fatal injuries during the penalty phase of the trial of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Monday.

‘I can’t truly be happy if I smile,’ victim’s father testifies

Following the visit, more victim impact statements were presented in court, with more of the victims’ families taking the stand to testify about the toll of the massacre and what their loved ones’ deaths have meant for them.

Anne Ramsay, mother of 17-year-old victim Helena Ramsay, remembered her daughter as a beautiful and graceful young woman — someone who was naturally athletic but who preferred exercising her mind to competitive sport. She loved watching “Jeopardy!”

Helena was killed on her father’s birthday, Anne Ramsay said. “That day will never be a celebration, and can never be the same for him,” she said, “and now is filled with pain, as is every day.”

In a statement read by her niece, the mother of Peter Wang, a 15-year-old shot as he held open a door to help his classmates get to safety, recalled how he was killed just before Chinese New Year, robbing the family of their most treasured holiday.

“We no longer decorate our house or host feasts on the most important holiday in our family. It is now Peter’s death anniversary,” she said. “This day of unity became a day that hurts the most.”

Jennifer Montalto pauses before giving her victim impact statement during the penalty phase of the trial of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter on Wednesday.

Much of the testimony in the Broward County court this week — particularly from the parents of the 14 students killed — has focused on all the things the victims and their families will never get to do and the irreparable damage to their everyday lives.

“Our family is broken. There is this constant emptiness,” said Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old Alex, who loved chocolate chip cookies, playing the trombone and video games.

“I feel I can’t truly be happy if I smile,” Schachter said Wednesday. “I know that behind that smile is the sharp realization that part of me will always be sad and miserable because Alex isn’t here.”

Max Schachter, left, with his son, Ryan, testifies during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz on Wednesday.

The loss of her daughter Meadow Pollack, 18, has “destroyed” Shara Kaplan’s life, she told the jury Tuesday, “and my capability of ever living a productive existence.” To articulate how her daughter’s death impacted her, she said, she would have to rip out her heart and show them how it had shattered into a million pieces.

And the Hoyer family will never be the same. “We were a family unit of five always trying to fit into a world set up for even numbers,” said Tom Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke — the youngest of three — was killed. “Two-, four-, six-seat tables in a restaurant. Two-, four-, six-ticket packages to events. Things like that.”

School district will pay more than  million to Parkland shooting victims and families

But the Hoyers are no longer a family of five, and “never again will the world feel right, now that we’re a family of four,” Hoyer said.

“When Luke died something went missing in me,” he said. “And I’ll never, never get over that feeling.”

To make their sentencing decision, jurors will hear prosecutors and defense attorneys argue aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances — reasons Cruz should or should not be executed.

The victim impact statements add another layer, giving the families and friends of the victims their own day in court, though the judge told the jury the statements are not meant to be weighed as aggravating factors.

CNN’s Sara Weisfeldt and Leyla Santiago contributed to this report.

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