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Mother of Parkland shooting victim Joaquin Oliver reflects on gunman's guilty plea


For Patricia Oliver, remembering the school shooting that killed her 17-year-old son Joaquin and 16 others in Parkland, Fla., is not easy. But as a guilty plea by the accused shooter thrust the case back into the headlines this week, she wants the world to remember Joaquin as just a kid, one who wanted the world to be better and safer.

PATRICIA OLIVER: The kid was a old soul that was able to have very deep conversations that he was caring about social issues. He was talking about that - the incompetence of the government not to put a stop on assault weapons, background checks and doing something different. And then it keeps happening. And not only that, we lost Joaquin because of that incompetence.

MCCAMMON: Patricia Oliver and her husband founded a nonprofit called Change the Ref to bring awareness to the impact of gun violence through art. That work has helped her heal, so had avoiding details about how the gunman planned and carried out the attack in 2018. But that changed when she heard those details for the first time during Wednesday's plea hearing. The gunman's case now moves to the penalty phase. He could face a life sentence, though prosecutors and many of the families of the victims are calling for the death penalty. I spoke to Patricia Oliver earlier today while she was on the road about how she's doing.

OLIVER: I always avoided to hear about what happened to Joaquin, the way it happened. It was really rough. I even was thinking not to have any interviews. I didn't want to talk about it. I was running away from that. But after I watch everything, I say, I have to face it, and I have to talk about it because it's very important that people understand how bad, how horrifying it is to be going through these situations.

MCCAMMON: And of course, you were watching when the lead prosecutor in the case described in a lot of detail - right? - how this unfolded moment by moment, something you weren't - you hadn't - you had sort of stayed away from that information before.

OLIVER: Yes. I never, ever went to any hearing, any meeting, any phone call. Me and my husband, we always run away from those details.

MCCAMMON: You said you thought about not giving any interviews this week. You decided to talk to us.


MCCAMMON: What do you want people to know about Joaquin, first of all?

OLIVER: I want people to know that Joaquin is not the one that just was a victim of this individual because for our good, that was just a few minutes. I want people to know Joaquin as the kid he still is, a kid that is bringing a difference, a kid that is very powerful because the way that he's been working through us, he's been doing a lot of things and is like a - is, like, magical. You know, he's been working through a lot of families, a lot of kids that he never knew. But people came back to me or to my husband and speak about him like they know him.

MCCAMMON: Of course, the next phase of this trial is the penalty phase. What do you hope will happen?

OLIVER: What I want is justice. There is not enough punishment that is going to fill the pain and the absence - physical absence that we are suffering as the parents with Joaquin. But after listening to every single case of that day of the hearing that every single step he took to put that all in place, meaning the weapon, meaning the magazine, meaning the process - so he thought in advance. He prepared himself to get ready for that moment. He videotaped himself before going to school. So I think he deserve the worst punishment.

MCCAMMON: The death penalty.

OLIVER: That's what I can say about it.

MCCAMMON: Did you hear when he apologized?

OLIVER: Yes, I heard that.

MCCAMMON: Did you think it was sincere?


MCCAMMON: Does it make any difference either way?

OLIVER: No, it doesn't make - to me, it doesn't make any difference. He did what he did, and he said it. And we heard that. And now he's asking for an apology, that he's sorry. Sorry of what? That he has to be - that he's afraid to be killed or in there - or stay on a jail forever and ever? Well, bad for you. You know?

MCCAMMON: I also want to ask you about the $25 million civil settlement that was announced this week with the Broward School District that will be split among the affected families. Are you satisfied with that?

OLIVER: This is not about money. I really don't care about that. We are not paying attention to that. We have our lawyers. They are the ones that are dealing with that. There is no amount of - my son's head doesn't have a price.

MCCAMMON: I know the Parkland community is still moving through this grief, and there are sadly far too many families like yours all over the country who are dealing with the aftermath of gun violence. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

OLIVER: I just want them to know that we are here together. That every single loss due to gun violence, it has to be our loss. It's not because we're - Parkland is less, more important than the one that are in Miami because if you go to Miami, you will see that this is happening every single day. Every single life matters. And every single loss, every single kid matters. And I remember that day one mom from Miami in one of these areas that are like - you know, they don't have the privilege that we have in Parkland. She lost her son, and nobody pay attention for that. And I feel - I feel her. I feel that mom. You know, there's no more or less pain. We are moms, and we need the same attention and the same care.

MCCAMMON: Well, Mrs. Oliver, I'm so sorry for your loss. And thank you so much for talking with us.

OLIVER: Well, thank you.

MCCAMMON: That's Patricia Oliver, mother of Joaquin Oliver and founder of the nonprofit Change the Ref. Thank you again for joining us.

OLIVER: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.