Jurors in the sentencing phase of the Parkland, Florida, school shooter’s trial are expected to visit the scene of the massacre Thursday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s 1200 building, which has been sealed since the attack in February 2018.
The visit, Judge Elizabeth Scherer explained to jurors Wednesday, is 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.
The jury view Thursday comes more than four years and five months after the shooting, on what would have been victim Joaquin Oliver’s 22nd birthday, his parents told CNN.
Joaquin’s mother, Patricia Oliver, said only that she hopes “emotions” are the jurors’ main takeaway after visiting the building, which 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.”
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 is not expected to be at the crime scene.
“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 is complete.
Jurors will not be allowed to have a smartphone, smartwatch or any type of camera, during the jury view. 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.
Following the visit, more victim impact statements are expected in court, the judge said, with more of the victims’ families taking the stand to testify about the toll of the massacre and the unique qualities of their lost loved ones.
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.”
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.”
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.