The prosecution rests its case in the penalty trial for the Parkland school shooter
The prosecution rested its case against the confessed Parkland shooter on Thursday, after jurors visited the school building where the massacre happened on Feb. 14, 2018 — and heard from loved ones of those who were murdered there.
Stepping inside the 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, jurors saw with their own eyes the bullet holes and the bloodstains, the abandoned laptops and unfinished assignments, the scattered valentines and withered roses.
Sun Sentinel reporter Rafael Olmeda was among a group of journalists allowed to enter the building after the jury. He said the classrooms appeared frozen in time.
“One of the most difficult things to look at in addition to the blood in the hallways and in the classrooms is just the knowledge that these people were having … just a beautiful day,” Olmeda said.
“Laptops are left open. Assignments are just sitting there never to be looked at again,” he added. “There was a lovely essay that was being written by one of the students about how lucky they all were to be having the opportunity to have an education.”
It was a brutal end to the prosecution’s case, meant to show that Nikolas Cruz’s actions were cold, calculated, premeditated, especially heinous and cruel, and created a great risk of death to many persons — all aggravating factors in state law, which if proven would make him eligible for the death penalty.
When the jurors returned to the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, they heard the final victim impact statements from friends and family members of Helena Ramsay, Peter Wang and Chris Hixon. Witnesses have testified that all three spent their final moments trying to help and protect others.
Anne Ramsay said her 17-year-old daughter Helena was born in Portsmouth, England, where the midwife who delivered her said Helena was the only newborn she knew who could lift her head up by herself.
Ramsay said Helena grew into a strong, graceful young woman who loved to exercise her mind and devoted herself to environmental and humanitarian issues. She even traveled to Orlando after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 to attend a benefit concert.
“As Helena’s mother, I was most impressed by Helena’s wisdom and strength of character as a young girl,” Ramsay said. “She excelled in school. One teacher in particular, Ms. Ivy Schamis, was Helena’s favorite. And she gave inspiration and hope to Helena.”
Helena was in Schamis’ History of the Holocaust class on the day that she and 16 others were murdered. Inside Schamis’ abandoned classroom in the 1200 building, the whiteboard still bears the hashtag #TogetherWeRemember. Bloodstains mark the place where Helena and her classmate Nicholas Dworet died. A sign on a bulletin board reads the words “we will never forget.”
“Helena was murdered on her father's birthday — February 14th. Valentine's Day. That day will never be a celebration and can never be the same for him. And now is filled with pain. As is every day,” Ramsay said.
Fifteen-year-old Peter Wang was holding open a door to help his classmates escape when he was shot and killed. When his mother Hui Wang took the witness stand on Thursday, she was shaking with emotion and bent over with grief.
Peter’s cousin Lin Chen sat next to Wang in the witness stand and read Wang’s statement on her behalf, as Wang wept.
“Peter was the perfect son. Everyone told me I was so lucky to have him,” Wang’s statement reads. “I can’t accept that he is gone. How can anyone accept the death of their children when they are taken in such a way?”
Peter was goofy, outgoing and devoted to his family, Wang wrote. He helped smooth over arguments and had a heart for others. The day he was murdered was the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve — forever marring the holiday for his family.
“We no longer decorate our house or host feasts on the most important holiday in our family. It is now Peter's death anniversary. This day of unity became a day that hurts the most,” Wang wrote. “Each night in bed. I wonder how life would be if Peter was still here. And I wish I could go back in time to see him again, hug him again and kiss him again.”
Aaron Chen said that his cousin Peter was more like a brother to him — and his best friend. As the eldest son in his family and a first-generation American, Chen said that Peter was his family’s bridge to their new life in the United States.
“To this day, I can't celebrate my own birthday just because the pain of — not being able to do it without him. Every birthday to me is just a reminder of someone who was my brother and my best friend. Someone who I just assumed would be there for me for my whole life,” Chen said. “I know I'm speaking for all of Peter’s friends when I say that all of our childhoods ended that day.”
Forty-nine-year-old Chris Hixon was the athletic director at the high school. He was also a Navy veteran and a trained military police officer. He ran towards the sounds of gunshots that day and was killed trying to confront the gunman.
“He was an extraordinary man living an ordinary life. And everybody who was lucky enough to have a relationship with him is better because of it,” his wife Debbi Hixon testified on Thursday. She taught in Broward County schools for three decades and was elected to the Broward County School Board after his death.
“Chris will always be the love of my life,” Hixon said. “The house that we shared doesn't feel like the home that we built because home meant Chris. Going to an empty bed is a constant reminder that he's gone. The night no longer brings intimacy and comfort, just the loudness of the silence.”
Hixon’s son Corey, who has a developmental disability called Kabuki Syndrome, also took the witness stand on Thursday. Chris was Corey’s “best buddy,” Debbi testified, and his death has been devastating.
Asked what he wanted the jury to know about his dad, Corey cried “I miss him!” as he leaned into his mom’s arms and she cradled him.
After the prosecution rested its case, the defense is slated to make its opening statements later this month.
The Associated Press and the South Florida Sun Sentinel contributed reporting to this story.
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