The visit, Judge Elizabeth Scherer told jurors on Wednesday, is intended to help them analyze the evidence presented so far in the trial of Nikolas Cruz, who faces the death penalty or life in prison after pleading guilty at 17. counts of murder and 17 counts. of attempted murder.
Thursday’s jury sighting 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 hoped “emotions” would be the main takeaways from jurors after touring the building, which has been closed to preserve it for trial. Officials announced that it would be demolished.
Jurors were instructed on Wednesday “to avoid touching, handling or moving anything.” The judge also told them to explore the stage on their own and at their own pace, moving as a group from floor to floor. Cruz shouldn’t be at the crime scene.
“Nothing will be explained or reported to you,” the judge’s instructions state. The jurors were also told to avoid speaking to anyone until the viewing was over.
Jurors will not be permitted to have a smartphone, smartwatch or any type of camera during the jury visit. In court, lawyers encouraged the judge to ask jurors to wear closed-toe shoes as they could encounter glass on the floor.
The current phase of the trial is to determine Cruz’s sentence: prosecutors are asking for the death penalty, while Cruz’s defense attorneys are asking the jury for life in prison without the possibility of parole. To recommend a death sentence, jurors must be unanimous. If they do, the judge could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life instead.
“I can’t really be happy if I smile”, testifies the father of the victim
After the visit, more victim statements are expected in court, the judge said, with more victims’ families speaking up to testify to the toll of the massacre and the unique qualities of their lost loved ones.
Much of the testimony in Broward County Court this week — particularly from the parents of the 14 slain students — focused on all the things the victims and their families will never be able to do and the irreparable damage to their daily lives.
“Our family is broken. There’s this constant emptiness,” said Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old Alex, who loved chocolate chip cookies, playing the trombone and playing video games.
“I feel like I can’t really be happy if I smile,” Schachter said Wednesday. “I know that behind that smile is the clear realization that a part of me will always be sad and miserable because Alex isn’t here.”
The loss of her daughter Meadow Pollack, 18, “destroyed” Shara Kaplan’s life, she told the jury on Tuesday, “and my ability to live a productive existence.” To express the impact of her daughter’s death on her, she says, 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 again. “We were a family unit of five always trying to fit into a world of even numbers,” said Tom Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke – the youngest of the three – was killed. “Two, four, or six-seat tables in a restaurant. Two-, four-, or six-ticket packages for events. Things like that.”
But the Hoyers are no longer a family of five, and “the world will never feel right again, now that we’re a family of four,” Hoyer said.
“When Luke died, something disappeared inside me,” he said. “And I will never get over this feeling.”
To make their sentencing decision, jurors will hear prosecutors and defense attorneys argue aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances — the reasons why Cruz should or should not be executed.
The victim impact statements add another layer, giving families and friends of the victims their own day in court, although the judge told the jury that the statements should not be considered aggravating factors.
CNN’s Sara Weisfeldt and Leyla Santiago contributed to this report.