Parkland trial reveals depths of families’ grief

Written by Javed Iqbal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Peter Wang’s mother has four tattoos in memory of her 15-year-old son, one inked on Feb. 14 every year since he was killed. 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 join relatives at family parties because her son is gone. Jaime Guttenberg’s mother finds it impossible to watch her beloved Florida Gators play football because they were also her daughter’s favorite team. Gina Montalto’s father struggles with his marriage, strained to grieve the loss of his daughter.

One by one, relatives and friends of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., took the stand in court this week and revealed to a jury the depth of their despair since losing their loved ones to shot for four years. since Valentine’s Day. During four days of deeply emotional testimony, 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 tight, trying to keep all my emotions under control,” said Linda Beigel Schulman, who lost her son, Scott J. Beigel, a geography teacher. “But today I’m taking the lid off that box.”

The heartbreaking testimony ended Thursday after the jury decide the gunman’s fate, 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 case, to the final day of their nearly three-week presentation and rested their case.

What the 12 jurors and 10 alternates saw inside Building 12 of Stoneman Douglas High, which has been fenced off and unused since the day of the shooting, was a moment frozen in time, a joyous holiday interrupted by a deadly rampage. Bullet holes pierced doors and walls. Shards of broken glass shattered under their feet. Laptops remained open, class work was incomplete. Dried rose petals were strewn on floors caked in blood.

In an unfinished assignment in English class, 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 be able to learn.” A hallway on the second floor featured a James Dean quote: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

The crime scene visit was delayed by 12 days often gruesome video and autopsy evidence in an agonizing trial where the jury will decide whether Mr. Cruz, 23, who has pleaded guilty, should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The defense is scheduled to open its case on August 22. The judge will first hold a non-jury hearing to determine whether defense lawyers can use a map of Mr. Cruz’s brain as evidence of the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Before hearing from the victims’ families and relatives, the jury listened to 17 survivors who were injured in the shooting describe how they sustained their injuries and the long-term effects of being hit by high-velocity gunfire. Several still have pieces of shrapnel in their bodies.

Benjamin Wikander’s radial nerve was so severely damaged that he still needs an armband. Maddy Wilford has trouble breathing with his right lung. Sam Fuentes suffers from chronic pain and spasms in her legs and no longer has the range of motion she once had.

But the courtroom felt perhaps most somber, as parents, siblings, grandparents and friends struggled to remain calm and remember their loved ones and describe life without them. They often reached for tissue. A bailiff offered them water.

“I can do it,” Tori Gonzalez, Joaquin Oliver’s girlfriend said as she took a deep breath on the witness stand. One juror cried as she called Joaquin her soul mate.

“I lost my innocence,” she said of the shooting. “I lost purity. I lost the love letters he wrote me in creative writing class in fourth period.”

Many relatives spoke of not being able 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 killed on her father’s birthday.

Families lamented that they would never see their children graduate from high school or college. Never got to walk them down the aisle. Never rejoice over their own children.

“She never got her braces off,” 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 sound of silence.”

Her son Corey Hixon, who has Kabuki syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, said of his father simply: “I miss him!”

Some people were angry. Alyssa Alhadeff’s father, Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, repeatedly shouted through tears, “This is not normal!” He said his wife “occasionally sprays Alyssa’s perfume just to try to smell her.”

“She even sleeps with Alyssa’s blanket four years later,” he added.

Some parents have struggled to work. Fred Guttenberg, Jaime Guttenberg’s father, who has become a gun control activist, said he has been unable to hold down a normal job and that his public crusade “has made life harder for my wife and harder for my son, and for the I’m sorry.”

“This broke me,” he said.

The shooting changed his relationship with his son, who had to wait for Jaime and drive her home after school that day. Instead, when Mr. Guttenberg heard about the shooting, he told his son to flee.

“He’s struggling with the reality that he couldn’t save his sister and he wishes it was him,” he said. “He’s angry that I convinced him to run.”

As victim after victim spoke, many people cried in the courtroom. So did several defense attorneys.

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.

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Javed Iqbal

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