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Defense for Parkland school shooter give opening statements as they try to spare killer from death penalty

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz capital murder trial
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
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South Florida Sun Sentinel
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill gives the defense’s opening statement during the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, August 22, 2022. Cruz previously plead guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

“In telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” lead attorney Melisa McNeill said.

Nikolas Cruz was “poisoned in the womb.”

It isn’t an excuse for killing 17 people and injuring another 17 at Stoneman Douglas HighSchool in 2018, but rather part of an explanation. This is the argument of the team of lawyers defending the confessed killer.

“In telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” lead attorney Melisa McNeill said during her 87-minute opening statement Monday morning.

Defense lawyers elected to give their opening statements only after prosecutors rested their case, which happened on August 4.

Defense lawyers dropped evidence they originally planned to use about brain scans and the diagnosis that Cruz had autism. On monday morning they gave jurors a window into Cruz’s life, spanning from his biological mother’s womb to a year before the shooting.

“Wounded and damaged people wound and damage other people. But we don't excuse the horrific acts of damaged and wounded people. We punish them," McNeill told jurors. "But we take into consideration their damage when we impose sentence.”

Brenda Woodard, Cruz’s biological mother, was a drug addict and alcoholic–often abusing them while pregnant with Cruz. She wasn’t sure who his father was, often high and sometimes working as a prostitute on US1 in Fort Lauderdale throughout the 1990s.

“And because Nicholas was bombarded with all of those things, he was poisoned in the womb. And because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken,” McNeill said.

Caroline Deakins, who worked and used drugs with Woodard during that time, testified that she watched her use crack, cocaine, cannabis and alcohol while pregnant. She didn’t want the baby Deakins told the court, then looked at Cruz from the witness stand.

“Nikolas, I’m sorry, but that’s how it was,” Deakins said.

Danielle Woodard, Cruz’s biological sister, also testified about their mother’s drug and alcohol use. She was almost 12 years old when Cruz was born and held him afterwards. Monday was the second time they had been in the same room together.

She testified to seeing addicts using crack and other drugs in her home. At times living with her grandmother, eventually she ran away and was placed in foster care. Her mother would beat drug screens while on probation by having her urinate into a container and hide it in her person.

“She had an addiction. She always put that first,” Woodard said. Cruz nodded after she said she still loved her brother.

Last to testify was Susan Lubar, a former Broward County preschool special needs teacher.

She testified that Cruz had language and behavioral problems when she taught him at age 4.

He had “animal fantasies” and would act like a tiger, curling his hands like paws and hissing at other children if they got too close.

“Nikolas would push children, scratch at them, topple over furniture, he would stay away from other children, and if they got too close, he would pounce,” she testified.

She would put a sheet over a table where he could go to be alone with toys and books to calm him. She told the court that she never did this with any other child in her long career.

Other children “knew that was his space and wouldn’t try to go in there,” she said.

Reporting from the Associated Press was used in this article.

Gerard Albert III is back in Broward, where he grew up, after reporting on crime and public safety in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and West Palm Beach. Albert is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University.