Parkland families talk of 'unspeakable loss' as they continue victim impact testimony in gunman's death penalty trial
By Dakin Andone, Sara Weisfeldt and Leyla Santiago, CNN
It wasn't until Anthony Montalto was sitting next to his wife testifying in a Florida courtroom Wednesday that he realized he was wearing the same clothes he wore the last time he took his daughter Gina to a father-daughter dance.
"I was so happy to be her father," Montalto said as he delivered his victim impact statement in the trial of Gina's killer, who faces the death penalty for the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school on Valentine's Day 2018.
"Gina didn't come home from school that day," said Jennifer Montalto, who, along with her husband, described their daughter as an avid reader who was quick to volunteer and once saved a boy who fell into the pool where she was playing.
Now there's an empty seat at their table, she said, a bedroom where her daughter will never sleep and a front door she will never walk through -- each of them objects that prompt a feeling of "unspeakable loss."
Where their house was once was filled with laughter, Anthony Montalto said, "now there's a deafening silence broken only by the deep sighs and soft sobbing that accompany what used to be happy memories of my children playing."
Wednesday was the third day of victim impact testimony in the trial of Nikolas Cruz, who has already pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
More victim impact testimony is expected Thursday, the judge indicated, but jurors are also set to visit the scene of the massacre, Marjory Stoneman Douglas' 1200 building, which has remained sealed since the shooting in order to preserve it for the gunman's trial. Cruz will not be attending the visit.
Following Wednesday's testimony, Judge Elizabeth Scherer and attorneys for the prosecution and defense outlined the instructions that Scherer read to the jurors before they were sent home, including a recommendation that they wear closed-toe shoes.
The visit is meant to help jurors analyze the evidence presented in the trial so far, the judge explained. It will take place both outside and inside, she said, where jurors will be guided but able to explore the scene on each floor. Jurors are not to touch anything, and they may not bring phones or cameras.
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.
Much of the testimony -- particularly from the parents of the 14 students killed -- 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. "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."
Isabel Dalu, a close friend of the family of Cara Loughran, told the court about all the things the 14-year-old was looking forward to when she was gunned down: Her birthday was a week later, and she'd be old enough to get her learner's permit. She'd recently started Irish dancing again, and she was excited to dance in the St. Patrick's Day parade. The family had a trip to Ireland for that summer to visit family.
"She dreamed of her first date, her first kiss and falling in love," Dalu said. "Cara dreamed of going to homecoming and prom, she dreamed of graduating at the top of her class with all of her loved ones watching."
"But Cara didn't make it to any of these milestones," she added.
Widow of assistant coach who shielded students testifies
Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old victim Jaime, said Tuesday that her older brother, who was also a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas at the time of the shooting, "Wishes it was him."
"He struggles," Guttenberg said, "with the reality that he could not save his sister, and he wishes it was him."
Melissa Feis, the widow of Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach who died after throwing himself in front of students to protect them from the gunfire, wrote in a statement read in court by a friend Tuesday that he "was the doting father who every little girl wishes and dreams about."
"I can see his light in Ariel and recognize his spirit woven into her fabric," the statement said, referring to their daughter, as Melissa Feis sat still in court with her eyes closed.
Raising their daughter as a widow "can be overwhelming and challenging," she wrote, and it's painful knowing there are milestones in their daughter's life that Feis has missed.
"Aaron isn't here to give his fatherly guidance and advice," she said. "It's heartbreaking and unimaginable at times. And yet, it's my reality."
'Never again will the world feel right'
To make their decision, jurors will hear prosecutors and defense attorneys argue aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances -- reasons Cruz should or should not be executed. 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.
"We don't have a system where it's the victims' families that get to decide whether you live or die if you kill their family members," Teresa Reid, legal skills professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, has told CNN.
"We don't have revenge. And so this is the mechanism that the family has."
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."
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