Nikolas Cruz’s defense says his brain was ‘poisoned’ by birth mother’s addictions in death penalty trial



A lawyer for Nikolas Cruz asked jurors Monday to consider the Parkland school shooter’s dysfunctional family life and his serious mental health issues when deciding whether to sentence him to death.

“By telling you Nik’s story, by telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” public defender Melisa McNeill said in a Florida courtroom on Monday. “That’s called mitigation. Mitigation is any reason you believe the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment in this case.”

In particular, McNeill highlighted his birth mother’s drug and alcohol abuse during his pregnancy, saying Cruz showed signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and antisocial personality disorder from a young age.

“Because Nikolas was bombarded by all those things, he was poisoned in the womb. As a result, his brain was irreparably broken, through no fault of his own,” McNeill said.

The comments were part of the defense’s opening statements in Cruz’s death penalty trial for killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at a Parkland, Florida high school in February 2018. It marked the first time jurors had heard anything from the defense. heard from Cruz. His lawyers delayed their initial opening statements, did not question students or teachers who survived the shooting, and only asked basic questions of other witnesses.

The defense also called the first two witnesses, a woman who testified that Cruz’s birth mother used drugs and alcohol while pregnant, and Cruz’s sister, who described life with a “terrible mother.”

Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 attempted murders in October, and the ongoing phase of his criminal trial is to determine his sentence. Prosecutors demand the death penalty, while Cruz’s lawyers ask the jury for life in prison with no chance of parole.

For three weeks in July and August, prosecutors claimed Cruz was “cold, calculating, manipulative and deadly” in carrying out his attack and called on a series of students, teachers, police officers and relatives of the victims to witness the horrific details of that day. Prosecutors also led jurors on a journey to the pristine scene of the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If jurors advise Cruz to be sentenced to death, they must be unanimous.

Fourteen of the dead were students: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow pollock, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 14.

Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, were also killed, each while running toward danger or trying to get students to safety.

In opening statements Monday, McNeill explained Cruz’s difficult family life, including his birth mother’s addiction history and the deaths of his adopted parents Lynda and Roger Cruz.

McNeill called Cruz a “damaged and injured” person and said lawyers plan to show the court disturbing things he said and wrote, his obsessions with guns and devils and even his school shooting “manifest”.

“His brain is broken,” she said. “He’s a damaged person. And that’s why these things happen.”

McNeill also explained Cruz’s interactions with the public education system, what she said proved unable to solve his problems.

Cruz had developmental delays early in his childhood, including his difficulty communicating with others. He would bite others, lash out emotionally and be intellectually disabled, McNeill said.

Cruz first received special education at the age of 6 and struggled socially and academically at school throughout his young lifeshe said.

He developed a fascination with firearms, and after bringing a gun to school, he wasn’t allowed to carry a backpack at all and was escorted from class to class, McNeill said. Still, in October 2016, Cruz and his adopted mother went to a gun store in South Florida and bought a rifle.

He attended Stoneman Douglas High School rather than a more specialized special education school, and some school officials expressed concern about his behavior to authorities. according to McNeill.

In February 2017, at age 18 and not on track to graduate, Cruz was told to drop out of school and literally ran off campus, McNeill said. A school monitor saw the scene and said, “That kid is coming back and shooting this school,” McNeill said.

His mother Lynda Cruz passed away in November 2017. which McNeill said had uprooted any stability in his life. By the time of the shooting, police had visited his home more than 40 times, she said.

“We will tell you Nikolas’ life story so that we can give you reasons to vote for life. That’s what I’m going to ask you to do,” she said.

The first two defense witnesses testified that Brenda Woodard, Cruz’s biological mother, used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant with Cruz.

Carolyn Deakins, a recovering addict who used drugs, drank and worked as a prostitute with Woodard in the 1990s, testified that Woodard showed no concern for the coming baby and used all her resources to buy drugs and alcohol.

Danielle Woodard, Cruz’s sister, similarly testified that her mother had abused drugs and alcohol during their childhood, creating a hostile environment for the children.

“She had an addiction. She always put that first, for me, or him, or Zach (Cruz), or whoever,” she said.

“She introduced me to a life that no child should be introduced to,” she added. “She had no respect for my life or his life.”

Brenda Woodard, who died last year, gave Cruz up for adoption when he was born in 1998. Danielle Woodard testified that she held Cruz as a baby but hadn’t been in the same room with him until Monday in court.

The defense case may include witness statements from Cruz’s siblings. Last week, Judge Elizabeth Scherer granted the state’s request to enforce testimonies for Zachary Cruz, the gunman’s brother, and Richard Moore, with whom Zachary currently lives in Virginia. Zachary Cruz and Richard Moore were ordered by the court to appear for impeachment on Sept. 6 to “answer every question posed by the state.”

During the cross-examination, prosecutors questioned Danielle Woodward about her relationship with Moore and Michael Donovan, who also lives with Zachary Cruz.

Woodard testified that she spoke to Moore on the phone a few times. She said he sent her food during her most recent incarceration and also sent her money, although she didn’t know him before the shooting.

Assistant state attorney Jeff Marcus asked Woodard about her new attorney who was appointed late last week and asked if she knew it was Moore who paid for the new attorney. She said no, it was Zachary Cruz who hired him. The same lawyer once represented Zachary Cruz.

Marcus also asked Woodward if she knew that Moore and Donovan were producing a reality TV show with an episode called “Being Zachary Cruz.” She said she was not aware of the show.

Susan Hendler Lubar, who previously worked with special needs children in South Florida, testified that Cruz was aggressive and uncommunicative when he joined her class at age 4.

“Nikolas would push kids, scratch at them, fall over furniture,” she said. “He would stay away from other kids and if they got too close to him, he would basically strike.”

Hendler Lubar said she began to observe and record his behavior, especially his aggression and “animal fantasies,” in which he hissed, scratched and curled his hands into paws while behaving like an animal.

She said she was trying to identify the cause of his behavior and provide interventions to prevent it. Cruz’s aggressive behavior appeared to be caused by his proximity to other children, she said.

The defense presented a form in court that Hendler Lubar completed when she was Cruz’s teacher. On the form, she noted that the child rarely dealt with reprimands or referrals without overreacting, rarely collaborated with peers, and rarely made friends easily. She also noted that he only occasionally showed self-control or followed rules.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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