FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School began coming to life Monday in the words, memories and anguish of those they left behind.
Jurors in the case have heard, in excruciating detail, about how they died. On Monday, they started hearing about how they lived, and about what the South Florida community lost when the confessed Parkland gunman took their lives on Feb. 14, 2018.
The gunman did not look up from the defense table while the witnesses testified about the victims. The witnesses, as has been their habit for more than four years, did not utter his name.
Patricia Oliver, the mother of shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, said she only talks to her son now in her mind.
“Our lives have been shattered and changed forever,” she said.
“What happens when we run out of pictures and the memories start to fade?” said Oliver’s older sister, Andrea Ghersi, who acted like a second mother and called him “my very own baby doll.”
“This is life now and it hurts,” she said.
His girlfriend, who referred to Oliver as her “soulmate,” talked about how they wanted to run away together to see Paris. “Joaquin was magic personified, love personified,” said Victoria Gonzalez. He wanted to make his family proud, she said.
“It’s so quiet now,” she said.
Jurors are not supposed to consider victim impact statements as an aggravating factor to decide whether the gunman should be executed or sentenced to life in prison, said Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer. But the victims have a right to address the jury at this stage in the proceedings.
Victim impact statements are scheduled to continue Tuesday.
One of the gunman’s attorneys also seemed moved to tears as she turned from her client and clutched a tissue, wiping her eyes.
The mother of victim Alaina Petty, 14, also needed the jury to understand her pain: “My heart stopped beating,” Kelly Petty said of the day her daughter died.
Alaina never even got a chance to get her braces off, her sister Meghan said. “It causes me pain to know that she never got to fall in love,” she said, lamenting that their parents had to walk across the stage to pick up an empty cap and an empty gown “and an honorary degree that she should have had a chance to earn.”
“I keep waiting for her to walk through the door,” her sister said. “Her absence screams at me.”
Teacher Scott Beigel went into teaching so he could keep going to summer camp, his parents said.
“I will never get over it. I will never get past it. My life will never, ever be the same,” said his stepfather, Michael Schulman.
The victim impact statements punctuated a day that first resembled the trial days that came before, with medical examiner’s testimony describing the damage done by the weapon Nikolas Cruz used to stalk the hallways of the high school. And prosecutors described the preparations the gunman took for the killings that Valentine’s Day.
Sitting in an Uber on his way to carrying out his massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the shooter was busy on his phone looking up the music video for “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song about a gunman targeting unarmed victims, a Broward sheriff’s detective testified.
It was among scores of searches on his phone leading up to the mass shooting, including a video called “Good songs to play while killing people,” and “How long does it take for a cop to show up at a school shooting?” in a Google search two days before massacre.
On top of his web searches, Cruz was texting back and forth with two people, including a girl he liked who was rejecting his advances.
Former Associate Broward Medical Examiner Terrill L. Tops testified about the injuries sustained by Luke Hoyer, Aaron Feis and Oliver, from the bullets fired from an AR-15-style rifle.
Hoyer, one of the first victims, was in the first-floor hallway when the shooting started.
Hoyer’s parents, Tom and Gena Hoyer, wept and squeezed each other’s hands in the gallery as Tops testified how the first bullet was enough to kill their son, who was shot twice. The first bullet had two entry points, first in his jaw, then in his neck. Blood filled his lungs “drowning” them, Tops said. The second bullet fractured part of his pelvis.
Tops then covered the death of Feis, the football coach who raced into the school to find the shooter.
A bullet fractured ribs, and one “was obliterated,” Tops said. He also used the word “obliterated” to describe part of his liver and pancreas.
Oliver, who had “multiple” gunshot wounds, was next, including injuries to his palm and leg that left large holes. Another injury penetrated his head, in the area over his left ear.
Surveillance video showed that Oliver, outside a third-floor bathroom, was shot by Cruz at close range. The testimony, accompanied by autopsy photos, depicted Oliver’s wounds in such devastating detail (”like a cherry bomb inside one’s head”) that when Tops was finished with testimony, Oliver’s sobbing mother was escorted from the courtroom by those sitting with her, including her daughter.
Broward Sheriff’s Detective Ron Faircloth testified more about the defendant’s web search history. He testified that a PDF file of the school’s bell schedule was downloaded onto Cruz’s cellphone the morning of Feb. 2, which is 12 days before the massacre.
Also shown was the video that Cruz had taken of himself before the shooting, in which he looked into the camera and said he was going to be “the next school shooter of 2018” and how “it’s going to be a big event.” In another video: “All the kids in school will run in fear and hide.” He said on the video his goal was to kill at least 20 people.
Graphic, disturbing testimony has been a staple of the trial, which opened July 18.
Defense lawyer Nawal Bashimam cross-examined the school’s JROTC instructor, introducing jurors to a different side of Cruz they have yet to see.
He was a troubled student with low academic achievement who was attending JROTC against the wishes of his psychiatrist, Bashimam said. His mother had told school officials that Cruz was “low-end autistic.” Although enrolled at Stoneman Douglas, he was attending classes at the Cross Creek school, which is for students with demonstrated behavioral problems.
Prosecutors are asking the jury to sentence Cruz to death for the 17 murders he committed at Stoneman Douglas. Cruz pleaded guilty to the murders last October, along with 17 counts of attempted murder. Defense lawyers are seeking a sentence of life in prison.
Under Florida law, the jury’s recommendation of death must be unanimous.
Prosecutors have previously said the victim impact statements would come at the end of their case, which appears to be moving at a faster rate than predicted because with very few exceptions, defense lawyers have refrained from cross-examining witnesses.
The state is not likely to extend the same courtesy when defense experts testify about the defendant’s history of mental and behavioral difficulty.
The case was projected to last through October and into November, with some scheduled breaks built into the process. The first of those breaks was at the end of last week. The next is most of next week.