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

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

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

“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,” McNeill said.

The comments were part of the defense’s opening statements in Cruz’s death penalty trial for the killing of 17 people and wounding of 17 more at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. It was the first time jurors have heard from Cruz’s defense. His attorneys deferred their initial opening statements, did not cross-examine any students or teachers who survived the shooting and asked only basic questions of other witnesses.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, and the ongoing phase of his criminal trial is to determine his sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, while Cruz’s defense attorneys are asking the jury for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Frozen in horror: Notes from inside the Parkland school massacre site
Over three weeks in July and August, prosecutors argued Cruz was “cold, calculative, manipulative and deadly” in carrying out his attack and called to the stand a series of students, teachers, police officers and victims’ family members to bear witness to the horrific details of that day. Prosecutors also led jurors on a trip to the untouched scene of the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

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

Fourteen of those killed 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 Pollack, 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, also were killed, each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.

Defense lays out Cruz’s difficult family life

Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table as attorney Melisa McNeill, left, and sentence mitigation specialist Kate O'Shea, right, speak during the penalty phase of his trial on Monday, Aug. 22.

In opening statements Monday, McNeill laid out Cruz’s difficult family life, including his birth mother’s history of addiction and the death of his adopted parents Linda and Roger Cruz.

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

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

McNeill also laid out Cruz’s interactions with the public education system, which proved unable to address his issues.

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

Cruz first received special education services at age 6, struggling in school socially and academically throughout his young life.

He developed a fascination with firearms and, after bringing a weapon to school, was forbidden from carrying 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 purchased a rifle.

Parents of the Parkland shooting victims describe their stolen futures in shooter's death penalty trial

He attended Stoneman Douglas High School rather than a more specialized special education school, and some school staff raised concerns to authorities about his behavior.

In February 2017, at age 18 and not on track to graduate, Cruz was told to leave the school, and he literally ran off the campus, McNeill said. A school monitor saw the scene and said, “That kid is going to come back and shoot this school up,” according to McNeill.

In November 2017, his mother Linda Cruz died, uprooting any stability in his life. By the time of the shooting, law enforcement had visited his home more than 40 times, McNeill said.

“We will tell you Nikolas’s 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 defense’s first witness was Carol Deakins, a recovering addict who in the 1990s used drugs, drank alcohol and worked as a prostitute with Cruz’s birth mother Brenda Woodard.

At the time, Woodard was pregnant with Cruz but showed no care for the coming baby and used all her resources to buy drugs and alcohol, Deakins testified.

The defense case may include testimony from Cruz’s siblings. Last week, Judge Elizabeth Scherer granted the state’s motion to compel depositions for Zachary Cruz, the gunman’s brother, and Richard Moore, who Zachary currently lives with in Virginia. Zachary Cruz and Richard Moore were ordered by the court to appear September 6 for deposition to “answer each and every question that are posed by the state.”

CNN’s Dakin Andone contributed to this report.

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