Nikolas Cruz’s troubled life began long before he was born, his lead defense lawyer told jurors on Monday, arguing that his biological mother’s heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy irreparably harmed his developing brain. Cruz is accused of killing 17 people at his former Florida high school four years ago. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck three times, depriving him of oxygen at birth; the first minute of his life were spent in resuscitation efforts.
Adopted at birth, his biological mother struggled to cope with her son’s growing social, emotional, and behavioral issues, which included an unhealthy preoccupation with firearms. Melisa McNeill, Mr. Cruz’s attorney, said that beginning with a psychological evaluation when he was 3 years old until the day he committed one of the bloodiest mass school shootings in American history at the age of 19, Mr. Cruz met with a bevy of professionals who knew his problems were significant.
Unsaid: None of these measures were able to stop the massacre that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.
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Assistant Public Defender Ms. McNeill said in her roughly 90 minute opening statement at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, “Wounded and damaged people wound and damage other people because they are in agony.” A little while later, she elaborated, saying, “Nikolas was poisoned in the womb.”
The unprecedented trial of a gunman who survived a mass shooting began on Monday, with Mr. Cruz’s defense team presenting their case to preserve his life. In a sentencing trial that began in July, he faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole for the 17 murders and 17 attempted murders to which he pleaded guilty last year.
The prosecution rested its case two weeks ago, after hearing heartbreaking evidence from those who had lost loved ones and touring the school where the massacre occurred.
Ms. McNeill stated that it was not her job to excuse or rationalize the mass shooting, but rather to convey the tale of the perpetrator and provide “reasons for life” for the jury to consider in light of the “aggravating facts” offered by the prosecution in their pursuit of the death sentence. Ms. McNeill emphasized the importance of jurors making independent decisions regarding the sentencing; a death sentence needs a unanimous jury, so even one dissenting voice could result in a life sentence.
She assured them that, “even in the worst circumstance possible,” the law never mandates them to vote for execution.
“Your life verdict can come from all the things that Nikolas did not show those 17 lovely beings,” she said. That “it can come from compassion, grace, and mercy,” the speaker continued.
She said that Mr. Cruz had video chats with Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse, 6, was slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The family of the Parkland victims who were present in court let out audible screams of shock at the news.
Ms. McNeill stated that “she and Nik are attempting to find a solution to avoid this from happening again.”
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Ms. McNeill’s main point was that the shooter had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder all along, but it wasn’t identified until after the shooting. Carolyn Deakins, the defense’s first witness, knew his late biological mother, Brenda Woodard. Both were homeless alcoholics and drug users in the 1990s Fort Lauderdale’s downtown.