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Lawyers say Parkland shooter's troubles started before birth, as jury considers 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 Tamara Curtis carries photographs of Brenda Woodard, the biological mother of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, August 22, 2022.

There has never been a question of Nikolas Cruz’s guilt.

But for the past two weeks his lawyers have argued that decisions made by other people – including some before Cruz was born - affected his behavior the rest of his life.

While they concede these decisions don't excuse the murder of 17 people, they are seeking to underline their role in his actions. In this penalty phase of the Parkland shooting trial, they just need to persuade one member of the jury to vote for a life sentence, in order to save Cruz from the death penalty.

The jury had already heard every detail of what happened on Feb 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as the prosecution laid out its case. Now they’re hearing about everything that, the defense say, led to 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," defense attorney Melisa McNeill told jurors. "But we take into consideration their damage when we impose sentence.”

Cruz's legal team started their argument by examining decisions made by his biological mother, Brenda Woodard. According to multiple defense witnesses, she used drugs and alcohol while pregnant, resulting in Cruz being diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

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. She then looked at Cruz from the witness stand. “Nikolas, I’m sorry, but that’s how it was,” she 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 as a newborn baby moments after. 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 mother's home. Growing up, she also spent periods living with her grandmother, before eventually running away and being 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, Woodard said. “She had an addiction. She always put that first,” she added.

Defense lawyers have been tracing Cruz's path from birth into high school. They questioned teachers and counselors who knew Cruz along the way.

Susan Hendler Lubar taught him in preschool. He was in a class for students with behavioral issues.

“Nikolas would push children, would try to scratch at them, would topple over furniture. He would stay away from other children and if they got too close to him he would basically pounce,” she said.

Lubar’s testimony that Cruz was aggressive and had trouble communicating was echoed by almost every witness that came after her. By middle school he was making threats and disturbing drawings in classrooms.

Cruz called girls and female teachers derogatory names, interrupted lessons and dashed from classrooms, according to reports shown in court during the testimony of Jessica Clark Fournoy.

Fournoy, a former special education counselor who worked with Cruz at Westglades Middle School, said that by eighth grade his conduct had gotten worse. Teachers repeatedly called campus security about his behavior, while school staff had to escort him to class and accompany him at lunch.

During the testimony of Dr. Brett Negin, a psychiatrist who treated Cruz, lawyers presented a letter from 2014, sent by school therapists in hopes to get his medication adjusted. Negin testified he never received the letter.

The letter, authored by two therapists at Cross Creek School, a campus attended by students with emotional and behavioral problems states that Cruz "continues to be aggressive and destructive with minimal provocation."

He destroyed a television after losing a video game, punched holes in walls and used sharp objects to cut up the furniture and carve holes in the bathroom. He had a hatchet that he used to chop a dead tree in the back yard, but his mother reported she could no longer find it.

Cruz shared at school “he dreams of killing others and is covered in blood.”

He was paranoid and “inappropriately” obsessed with guns and the military. According to testimony, he was also verbally aggressive toward his teachers and placed the blame on others for the problems he creates.

The defense went on to present testimony from friends of Lynda Cruz, who adopted the shooter at birth. She was hesitant to get her son treated for behavioral issues, they said.

Melisa McNeill, the defense lawyer, questioned Frederick Kravitz, who treated Cruz when he was 8 years old.

“Did you get the impression, based on Nikolas' behavior when you met with him and mom's responsiveness, that those interventions and those strategies were being used at home?" she asked.

"I don't think they were very much. I think she'd throw up her hands too readily," he replied. Kravitz added that she did not bring Cruz to treatment consistently.

Finai Browd, a close friend of Lynda Cruz, testified about Nikolas seeing his adoptive father, Roger, die. “As clear as sunshine he said, ‘No, Daddy is dead,’” Browd said she was told by his mother. Nikolas Cruz did not get grief counseling until four years after the 2004 death, according to testimony.

Browd testified that Lynda was "a great mom" who was " "overjoyed and ecstatic" when she adopted Nikolas. But by the time he was 4 years old, she noticed that he was not behaving normally.

“He would throw things. He would lay down and scream and cry, but not like a normal kid,” Browd said.

Lawyers for Cruz plan to call around 80 witnesses. The defense is presenting mitigating circumstances, as opposed to the prosecution's aggravating factors.

The jury has been instructed to only consider the defense's mitigation if they feel the state has met the criteria for proving aggravating factors. What weight jurors give to the defense's case is their own decision. If jurors think the mitigation outweighs the aggravators, then they are instructed to vote for a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

The sentencing trial is expected to last into October.

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.