The night before Adriana Vance addressed her son’s killer in a Colorado courtroom, she was still searching for the right words.
She had spent days struggling to write a statement about her son Raymond Green Vance, 22, one of the five people killed last November in a shooting rampage at Club Q in Colorado Springs. She wanted to say how sweet and easygoing he had been. How Raymond’s little brother had dangled off his hulking 6-foot-4 frame as if it were a jungle gym. How at the funeral, Raymond’s friends had not wanted to let go of his coffin. How Ms. Vance felt as though there was no justice.
“I have to say something,” she said on Sunday night. “I just — right now, I don’t know what.”
Every day, in courtrooms across the country, victims of violence stand up, turn to face the accused, and express life-altering anguish and loss. These victim impact statements are meant to give grieving families and survivors their moment in court before sentencing. And the latest era of mass shootings has brought new resonance to this ritual of the American justice system.
Because most mass shooters do not live to see a trial, there is often no such moment after their attacks. But when the killer survives — as with the attacks at Club Q, at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and at a synagogue in Pittsburgh — the question of whether to speak and what to say can be particularly fraught. Should those minutes be spent focusing on lost loved ones, or condemning the killer, or even offering forgiveness, as families did after a racist massacre inside a Charleston church?
The courtroom is often filled with reporters and cameras, and victims say they feel the burden of speaking not just for themselves and the memory of their loved ones, but also for others whose lives have been torn apart by mass shootings.
In Colorado Springs, the 23-year-old assailant pleaded guilty on Monday to multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. The survivors and victims’ families each had three minutes to face the shooter. There were a lot of victims to hear from, and only so much time, the judge said.
How do you distill someone’s life and death into the space of a commercial break? To Ms. Vance and other families, it felt like an important — and impossible — assignment.
“There’s no amount of words,” she said the day before she spoke in court. “You can’t.”
Sabrina Aston, the mother of Daniel Aston, another of the Club Q victims, wrote down a few thoughts over the weekend as she and her husband, Jeff, flew home from Pride celebrations in Tulsa. They get invitations to a lot of L.G.B.T.Q. events in honor of Daniel, a transgender man and bartender at Club Q who was killed at the age of 28 when the defendant shot his way into the club just before midnight on Nov. 19.
“We’ve been going over this in our heads for months, you know — what I would say to him,” Ms. Aston said, referring to the shooter.
The night before the hearing, the Astons shared a drink on their patio in Colorado Springs, remembering little things about Daniel and weighing whether they wanted to deliver their statements themselves, or have them read on their behalf by a lawyer or family representative.
An aunt of Derrick Rump, a Club Q bartender who was killed, stopped speaking a few words into her speech in court. “I can’t,” she said, her voice breaking. She played a voice recording from one of Mr. Rump’s cousins.
The Astons decided to address the defendant in court. “I wanted to face him and tell him how he hurt us,” Ms. Aston said. The defendant identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, but many of the victims and victims’ relatives reject those preferences as an attempt to win leniency.
When it was the Astons’ turn to speak, they walked together to a lectern several feet away from where the shooter sat in the packed courtroom.
Mr. Aston talked about his son’s easy laughter and “burning blue eyes.” Ms. Aston, her voice trembling, told the killer, “your actions were brutal, hate-filled and cowardly.” She said she did not believe the shooter was remorseful, and made a point to say she did not forgive. The Astons did not look at the shooter, though afterward, Mr. Aston said he wished he had confronted the defendant more directly.
On Sunday night, Ms. Vance, 42, put her 9-year-old son Marcus to bed, and sat down once again with her notepad and pen. This time, her anger poured out — a gusher of invective calling the shooter names, calling them evil and saying they did not deserve to breathe the same air as the survivors and victims’ families.
She discarded what she had written, put down her pen and tried to sleep.
“They weren’t good words,” Ms. Vance said. “He meant to destroy lives and families and create chaos. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of hearing my pain. I started thinking, I just need to make it more about Raymond.”
She woke with a start around 2 a.m. and paced through her house, thinking about the coming morning in court, and about her sons.
When Ms. Vance and her family spoke about Raymond, the stories poured out. He was a gentle giant with a wild crown of hair and a bottomless appetite for sushi and his grandmother Esthela’s tacos. He had recently started working at FedEx. He loved playing Call of Duty; he loved his Rottweiler, Draco, and his girlfriend, Kassandra Fierro.
Raymond had gone to Club Q that night with Ms. Fierro and her family to celebrate the birthday of a friend who was a drag performer at the club, Ms. Vance said.
As she prepared to go to court, the paper was still blank. Ms. Vance put on a black T-shirt with Raymond’s picture on it, dropped Marcus off with a sitter and headed to the courthouse. Her mother and father suggested a few lines to get her going, and urged Ms. Vance not to make her three minutes about the shooter.
When her turn came, she paused at the microphone, crying, then took several breaths and slowly read the lines she had just typed into her phone.
“Raymond was 22 years old, a kind, loving, gentle man who touched a lot of people’s hearts,” she said. “He was always there for his family and his friends. He was there for people he didn’t even know. He never harmed a soul.”
She pointed out how it had taken less than five minutes for the shooter to destroy so many lives. She said they all had to find a way to live, but she believed the shooter “does not deserve to see another sunrise or sunset.”
“That’s all I have to say.”
Kelley Manley contributed reporting.