The defense attorney for Parkland mass school shooter Nikolas Cruz urged the jury to spare his life as she argued that he was ‘poisoned in the womb’ from his biological mother’s drinking and drug use during pregnancy and that ‘his brain was irretrievably broken.’
Lead public defender Melisa McNeill told jurors on Monday that ‘there is no defense for this crime‘ committed by Cruz – who killed 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018 in Parkland, Florida.
But McNeill cited brain damage linked to fetal drug and alcohol exposure as reason not to impose the death penalty.
‘Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own,’ McNeill told the jury.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to committing premeditated murder at the high school, about 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members.
Nikolas Cruz’s attorney urged the jury to spare his life as she revealed the school shooter was ‘poisoned in the womb’ and that his brain was ‘irretrievably broken’ by his mother’s drinking
Lead public defender Melisa McNeill cited brain damage linked to fetal drug and alcohol exposure as reason not to impose the death penalty on Cruz
McNeill argued that instead of the death penalty, Cruz should instead receive life in prison without parole due to mitigating factors including lifelong developmental delays and mental-health disorders that arose from his biological mother’s drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy.
McNeill said she would present witnesses including people who knew him and medical experts during a trial in which jurors must decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison without possibility of parole.
‘We must understand the person behind the crime,’ McNeill said.
‘I stand before you today in a space filled with overwhelming sadness, painstaking grief, anger and trauma.’
McNeill had deferred her opening statement from the trial’s first day of July 18 to the beginning of her team’s case. A rare strategy, it appears part of a broader plan to acknowledge the horror of Cruz’s slaughter and not anger jurors by challenging it.
She told the jurors on Monday that Cruz was born to a ‘homeless, mentally ill’ mother who was an addict who used alcohol and drugs during her pregnancy.
‘Because Nikolas was bombarded by all of those things, he was poisoned in the womb. Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own,’ she said.
McNeill told the jurors on Monday that Cruz was born to a ‘homeless, mentally ill’ mother Brenda Woodard (pictured) who was an addict who used alcohol and drugs during pregnancy
Woodard, pictured in a mugshot, gave Cruz up in a private adoption. She died in 2021
An undated photograph of Woodard is shown on a screen in the courtroom during the trial
She said that throughout much of his life his developmental and behavioral problems were not addressed.
Yet even though teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas recognized he was a threat to himself and to others, he did not get adequate care, and any support he had disappeared after he was forced to drop out in 2017 aged 18.
One year later, on February 14, 2018, Cruz returned to the school with a high-powered assault rifle and killed 17 people, including 14 students.
McNeill said the circumstances of his birth and upbringing should mitigate the punishment, and that life in prison was more appropriate than execution.
‘Nikolas Cruz’s decision to take an Uber to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and kill as many people as he could possibly kill is not where Nikolas Cruz’s story starts,’ she said.
McNeill said Cruz was born with fetal alcohol stress disorder and assessed at three with antisocial personality disorder.
His birth mother gave him up in a brokered private adoption, she said — but his adoptive mother Lynda Cruz also became an alcoholic, and he grew up in a broken home.
The gunman (pictured as a baby) and was adopted by Lynda Cruz (pictured) who died in 2017 – three months before his murderous rampage
Cruz, pictured, was said to be ‘gun obsessed’. He was armed with at least one AR-15 rifle and had ‘multiple magazines’ when he stormed the school
After Cruz left school, McNeill said he ended up living with his brother and mother in a home where police and social services were called dozens of times after violent incidents.
‘He didn’t stop being brain-damaged. He didn’t stop being emotionally handicapped. He didn’t stop having language impairment. He didn’t stop needing services. But they were all gone,’ she said.
Jurors, who visited the scene of the school and were shown harrowing videos of the mass shooting by prosecutors in July, have to vote unanimously if he is to be executed.
Aiming to persuade just one juror otherwise, McNeill stressed that each jury member has to make ‘an individualized moral decision’ on whether Cruz’s life story mitigates the punishment.
‘We will tell you Nikolas’ life story so that we can give you reasons to vote for life,’ she said.
McNeill on Monday acknowledged the horror of Cruz’s crime but reminded the jurors that they were under no obligation to vote for death even ‘in the worst case imaginable. And it is arguable that this is the worst case imaginable.’
Under Florida law, a jury must be unanimous in its decision to recommend that a judge sentence Cruz to be executed.
Cruz is seen inside the school in an image released during the investigation. The building’s interior has been left nearly intact since the shooting: Bloodstains still smear the floor, and doors and walls are riddled with bullet holes
Surveillance video shows Cruz inside the school in 2018. Jurors retraced the path Cruz followed on February 14, 2018, as he methodically moved from floor to floor, firing down hallways and into classrooms
During the prosecution’s three-week case, the defense rarely cross-examined witnesses.
They asked one teacher from a classroom where no one was shot about the lack of a security monitor in the three-story building where the slayings happened. When the gun store owner who sold Cruz the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle used in the killings testified, they asked what Florida´s minimum age was in 2017 to buy a rifle – 18 – and today – 21.
Neither they nor the prosecutors then asked the store owner why the law was changed: Cruz was 19 when the shooting happened and the Republican-led Legislature raised the age limit as part of a larger package of gun laws enacted in response to the shootings.
Cruz’s youth will be part of his defense and while Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer has barred the defense from presenting testimony that directly casts blame on third parties like school administrators for not preventing the shooting, his attorneys will likely try to indirectly make such points.
People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the shooting
The defense will be trying to overcome the horrendous evidence that was laid out by lead prosecutor Mike Satz and his team, capped by the jurors´ Aug. 4 visit to the fenced-off building that Cruz stalked, firing about 150 shots down halls and into classrooms. The jurors saw dried blood on floors and walls, bullet holes in doors and windows and remnants of Valentine´s Day balloons, flowers and cards.
Prosecutors also presented graphic surveillance videos of the massacre; gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos from its aftermath; emotional testimony from teachers and students who witnessed others die; and four days of tearful and angry statements from parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and how their loved one´s death affected their lives. Jurors also watched video of Cruz calmly ordering a cherry and blue raspberry Icee minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a jail guard.
After the defense concludes its case, the prosecution will present a rebuttal case before each side gives its closing argument and jury deliberations begin.
McNeill had deferred her opening statement from the trial’s first day of July 18 to the beginning of her team’s case
Cruz said when he pleaded guilty that he was ‘very sorry’ and asked to be given a chance to help others.
The start last month of the trial’s penalty phase included testimony from students who were at school that day and cellphone videos in which terrified students cried for help or spoke in hushed whispers as they hid.
U.S. gun violence gained renewed attention following recent mass shootings, including one at a July Fourth holiday parade outside Chicago that killed seven people and another in May at a school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
President Joe Biden in June signed the first major federal gun reform in three decades, which he has celebrated as a rare bipartisan agreement.