The last thing Fred Guttenberg told his 14-year-old daughter was that it was time for her to go, that she was going to be late. Hours after rushing his two children to school that Valentine’s Day morning in 2018, a shooter unleashed a barrage of gunfire inside a Parkland, Fla., high school — killing 17 people, including Jaime Guttenberg.
During Tuesday’s sentencing proceedings for the convicted shooter, Nikolas Cruz, Guttenberg’s voice broke while he talked of the imagined future he had for Jaime, one that never came to be. But his were not the only tears falling in court — members of Cruz’s defense team were also crying, videos show.
“I cannot recall if I actually ever did tell Jaime that day how much I loved her. I never knew that I would lose the chance to say it over and over and over again,” Guttenberg said as public defender Nawal Najet Bashiman dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Two others on Cruz’s team also shed tears during testimony Tuesday.
Jurors have heard from teachers, survivors and families whose lives were upended by the massacre since the trial began July 18. They’ve seen videos of students fleeing for their lives and listened to the screams and loud bangs that rang through the air that day — all to determine whether Cruz, who pleaded guilty in October, should be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors making the case for the death penalty are basing their arguments on seven of the aggravating factors established in state law, including that Cruz’s acts were “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.”
“Those actions, killing 14 children, the athletic director, coach and a teacher, is why we’re here today — cold, calculative, manipulative and deadly,” Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz said in his opening statement.
In Florida, a death sentence requires a unanimous recommendation by the jury. If he’s punished with death, Cruz, now 23, would be one of the youngest people to receive that sentence in recent decades.
Cruz’s defense attorneys — who had proposed a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence — have previously painted a picture of a troubled young man who has shown signs of remorse after struggling with mental health issues and a difficult childhood. However, they announced on July 18 that they wouldn’t give an opening statement until it’s time to present their case in the following weeks.
In the meantime, however, the proceedings have been filled with testimony from parents relaying heartbreak after heartbreak — stirring emotions even for those who are working to save Cruz’s life.
It’s rare for attorneys to cry in the courtroom — especially “based on something the other side has said,” said Keith Swisher, a professor of legal ethics at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law.
With this being “an incredibly overwhelming, heated, and atypical case,” it’s unlikely to bring negative consequences upon the attorneys, he said. It could lead Cruz to seek new counsel, though, he added.
“In a typical legal case … the client would likely feel betrayed and perhaps the wrong signal would be sent to the judge or jury if the client’s own attorney cried based on the opposing side’s evidence or arguments,” Swisher said. “If the crying, or other visible signals, possibly bias the jury against the defendant, the defendant might have a basis to appeal.”
On Tuesday, Thomas and Gena Hoyer described how the loss of their 15-year-old son, Luke — called affectionately by his mother “Lukey Bear” — had irreparably broken what had been “a family unit of five always trying to fit into a world set up for even numbers,” Thomas Hoyer said.
Luke had been a “surprise baby,” coming along several years after his older siblings. That Feb. 14 morning, he woke up to a bag of Skittles and a card from his mother. His father, on his way to work, yelled “Have a good day” from downstairs without seeing Luke’s face — in “the kind of casual exchange you have when you think you have forever together,” Hoyer said, “and then we didn’t.”
During the Hoyers’ victim impact statement, public defenders Bashiman and Tamara Curtis couldn’t hold back tears. Chief Public Defender Melisa McNeill wiped hers away. Cruz sat expressionless.
Soon after, Judge Elizabeth Scherer called for a 10-minute break.
As the courtgoers stood up and began clearing the room, crumpled tissues could be seen on the table where the defense team sat — they’d be used again.