Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Aug 22 (EFE).- The defense team for Nikolas Cruz, the self-confessed perpetrator of the 2018 South Florida high school massacre in which he killed 17 people, on Monday asked the jury to view “the person” behind the crime and said that mitigating factors exist that justify not handing the death penalty to the killer but rather life behind bars.
“He was poisoned in the womb, and because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken through no fault of his own,” Melisa McNeill, the assistant public defender who heads the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student’s defense team told the jury in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, court room.
“Everyone here agrees that Nikolas deserves to be punished, without a doubt,” McNeill said. “But life without the possibility of parole is a severe enough penalty.”
On Feb. 14, 2018, the then-19-year-old Cruz took an Uber to the high school and opened fire, killing 14 students and three staffers.
A little over a month ago, the prosecution began presenting their case arguing for the death penalty for Cruz, providing a detailed description of the “heinous, atrocious, and cruel” manner in which he spent seven minutes carrying out the massacre inside the school, from which he had failed to graduate due to conduct problems, but McNeill on Monday spared no effort to provide descriptions of her client’s family and mental background.
In her opening arguments in court, where the trial’s sentencing phase is under way after Cruz last October pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first degree murder, McNeill asked the 12 members of the jury not to confuse mitigation with justification, because there is “no justification” for these crimes, which – she said – have profoundly impacted everyone involved.
The attorney presented her version of Cruz’s history, saying that at age 3 he has his first appointment with a psychiatrist after it was discovered that he was having learning difficulties and then years later, during middle school, he began to develop a fixation on firearms.
McNeill took the jury back to Cruz’s biological mother, Brenda Woodard, a homeless drug addict who gave her son up for adoption and had not stopped her heavy consumption of illegal drugs despite being pregnant, as per the arrest reports for possession and purchase of cocaine in 1998, the year in which the boy was born.
Her ongoing consumption of alcohol and drugs “poisoned” the forming of Cruz’s brain, McNeill said, and he developed problems associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, the symptoms of which include behavioral and learning problems as well as other physical problems.
Over the years, she said, and under the care of his adoptive mother, Linda Cruz, Nikolas was diagnosed with attention and socialization problems, about which McNeill went into detail, and on top of that his adoptive father died in 2004, after which the family found itself mired in financial debt.
His behavioral problems decreased somewhat when Nikolas Cruz went to a middle school – grades 6, 7 and 8 – in Broward County that specialized in teaching students with mental and development problems, and among the staff of which are dozens of psychologists and therapists, but where his fixation with firearms was unable to be eradicated.
In fact, the specialists at the school warned a “stressed and exhausted” Linda, at that time a single mother with two children, one of them disabled, not to buy young Nikolas BB or pellet guns, although the woman had already done so, just as years later she bought him a semi-automatic rifle.
McNeill noted in the court presided over by Broward County Judge Elizabeth Scherer, that the specialists and social workers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High warned about the boy’s emotional problems and his persistent obsession with weapons when he was still a student at the school of more than 3,300 students.
The attorney said that they even asked the police officer stationed at the school, Scot Peterson, to invoke the so-called “Baker Act,” a Florida law that permits law enforcement authorities to detain a person against their will if their mental condition poses a problem for them or for the public. The officer, however, refused to take that step.
In late 2017, Linda Cruz died and Nikolas lost “the one consistent person in his life,” McNeill said, and four months later he staged the massacre.
In the coming days and weeks, the seven men and five women of the jury will hear testimony from specialists, teachers and school personnel called by McNeill’s team with an eye toward supporting the defense argument that the mitigating factors in the case outweigh the prosecution’s arguments for the death penalty.
The defense is requesting that their client receive life in prison without possibility of parole, while prosecutors, who at the beginning of August wrapped up their arguments by having the jury visit the school, are demanding capital punishment.
The jury would have to unanimously agree to return a death penalty verdict.