Alawyers for the person who confessed killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 highlighted his birth mother’s history of drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy in an attempt to save him from execution.
“He was poisoned in the womb and because of that his brain was irretrievably damaged through no fault of his own,” Nikolas Cruz public defender Melissa McNeil said Monday in her opening statement.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of first-degree murder. During that trial, a 12-member jury will decide whether he should be sentenced to death, which must be unanimous, or life in prison without parole.
“Nikolas Cruz’s decision to take an Uber to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and kill as many people as possible is not where the story of Nikolas Cruz begins,” McNeil told jurors. “Individuals are profoundly influenced by the places they come from.”
McNeil claims that Cruise’s biological mother abused drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant with him, causing him to suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She said Cruz had developmental delays and behavioral problems as early as preschool, when he struggled to communicate and couldn’t get along with other children. He developed a fascination with firearms, she said, and struggled behaviorally, socially and academically while attending Stoneman Douglas High School until February 2017.
Cruz’s adoptive father died days before he started kindergarten. And his adoptive mother, whom McNeil described as “the only consistent person in his life,” died in November 2017.
During the first weeks of the trialProsecutors and witnesses recounted in harrowing detail the events of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting, when Cruz killed 17 people and wounded 17 others in an attack that Attorney General Michael Satz described as “heinous, brutal and cruel.”
Earlier this month, jurors visited the school building, which remains unchanged since the day of the shooting, passing scattered roses from Valentine’s Day celebrations and unfinished schoolwork in classrooms stained with blood and pockmarked with bullet holes. And family members of those killed gave heartbreaking victim impact statements.
“We will always live with excruciating pain. We have an empty bedroom in our house. There is an empty chair at our dining table. said Annika Dweret, whose 17-year-old son Nick was killed in the shooting. “We didn’t get to see Nick graduate from high school or college. We will never see him marry.
“We will always hesitate before answering the question ‘How many children do you have?'” she added.
It is the deadliest mass shooting ever brought to trial in the US. But prosecutors face the challenge of getting all 12 jurors to agree to sentence Cruz to death. If just one juror is convinced by the defense attorneys’ arguments, then Cruz will be sentenced to life in prison.
“It seems that if the death penalty is meant for anyone, it’s someone who has killed so many people,” Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Minnesota, who has studied the past of mass shooters. told TIME earlier. “On the other hand, I think we know from our research that these perpetrators tend to have a very strong mitigating case in terms of what that pathway looks like to violence and trauma, mental health, suicidality and all of those things.”
According to Florida law, there are 16 “aggravating factors” that increase the gravity of a crime and make a defendant eligible for the death penalty. In order to award the death penalty, jurors must unanimously agree that at least one aggravating factor has been proven by prosecutors beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors say there are seven aggravating factors in this case, including that Cruz “knowingly created a great risk of death to many people”; that the killings were “cold, calculated and premeditated”; that they were “particularly heinous, atrocious or cruel”; and that they were committed to “disrupt or obstruct a governmental function,” such as public school education.
In response, the defense will present evidence of mitigating circumstances, including mental health issues and childhood trauma, that mean the death penalty should not be imposed. On Monday, defense attorneys called Cruz’s biological sister and a woman who knew his biological mother to testify about her drug and alcohol addiction and her drug use during pregnancy.
“Everybody here agrees that Nicholas deserves to be punished without a doubt,” McNeil said. “But life without the possibility of replacement is a severe enough punishment.”
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