FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — For Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s lead attorney, his Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre of 17 people didn’t begin when he stepped into a building at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire with his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
Public defender Melisa McNeill told the jury during her opening statement in Cruz’s penalty trial Monday that while they learned in graphic and gruesome detail from prosecutors how he gunned down those 14 students and three staff members, her team’s job is tell them Cruz’s full story before they vote whether to sentence him to death or, as she hopes, life without parole.
She said nothing in that story will erase that the seven men, five women and 10 alternates have “seen things that will haunt us forever” or excuse what her 23-year-old client did. He pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder and the trial will only decide his sentence.
“Everyone knows there is one person responsible for all that pain and all of that suffering, and that person is Nikolas Cruz,” she said.
But, she said, she hopes jurors will consider how Cruz was failed by his birth and adoptive mothers, Broward County school officials and others in the two decades leading up to the shooting, pointing out that the law “never requires you to vote for death,” not even “in the worst case imaginable, and it’s arguable that this is the worst case imaginable.”
McNeill deferred her opening statement from the trial’s first day of July 18 to the beginning of her team’s case. For Cruz to be sentenced to death, the jury must be unanimous — if even one juror votes for life, that will be his sentence.
Prosecutors concluded their case Aug. 4. There had been a two-week hiatus so some jurors could deal with personal issues and the lawyers with some legal ones.
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’ 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 t earful 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.
But McNeill said that was not the whole story. She said evidence will show that his late birth mother, Brenda Woodard, abused cocaine, alcohol and tobacco during her pregnancy, leaving him brain damaged.
The defense’s first witness, Carolyn Deakins, testified Monday that she and Woodard were Fort Lauderdale prostitutes together in the late 1990s and when they weren’t turning tricks, they were getting high on whatever they could get — crack cocaine, alcohol, marijuana — even when Woodard knew she was pregnant with Cruz.
Deakins said she tried to get Woodard to stop abusing drugs during her pregnancy, “but she didn’t care” since the baby was going up for adoption.
McNeill told the jury the adoptive family, Roger and Linda Cruz, were older — he was 62 and she was 48. But after several miscarriages and a failed adoption, Linda Cruz was desperate for a child and gladly took Nikolas, even though she likely knew about Woodard’s drug and alcohol use.
Linda Cruz wanted a perfect family, McNeill said, and when it became clear by age 2 that Nikolas was slow and different from other children, she refused to drop the facade. When her son was referred to a child psychiatrist when he was 3, she only took him to that doctor once — even though the doctor noted that he had severe issues.
At preschool, Cruz was terrified of other children, McNeill said, and a teacher placed a sheet over a table so he could go underneath it and have a private space where he felt safe. She later made him a box with cutouts he could go into.
But he couldn’t adapt. Pretending he was a tiger, he would bite, hit, kick and spit on other children, McNeill said.
Roger Cruz then died suddenly just before Nikolas entered kindergarten, leaving his mother overwhelmed and deeply in debt — problems that never went away and affected how she dealt with her son’s mental problems, McNeill said.
She refused to have him committed so she wouldn’t lose his Social Security check. She turned to law enforcement and child emergency counseling services to discipline Nikolas and his younger brother Zachary, whom the Cruzes also adopted, calling them to her home more than 50 times combined.
Still, she bought Cruz a BB gun, an air gun and, when he turned 18, his first firearm even though she was told not to by mental health experts. When she died four months before the Stoneman Douglas shooting, her family declined to take in Cruz and his brother, leaving them to fend for themselves.
And the schools failed Cruz, McNeill said, by removing him from structured programs where he had some stability and putting him into the normal chaos of middle school and high school, the kind of interactions he could not handle — even when he had to stop wearing a backpack and be escorted to classes by security guards after he was found with a knife on campus.
These are not excuses, McNeill said, but facts she asked the jury to consider.
“You have to make a decision about whether another human being lives or dies,” McNeill said. “They are part of Nikolas’ story and it’s my job to tell you that story.”