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Parkland defense case: Signs of violence were noticeable at school and at home

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz capital murder trial
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Assistant Public Defenders Melisa McNeill, left, and Tamara Curtis participate in a sidebar discussion via headset during the penalty trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter at the Broward County Courthouse on Tuesday, August 30, 2022.

The warning signs were there. Neighbors noticed it. Teachers noticed it. Even family friends of Nikolas Cruz like Finai Browd noticed his out of control behavior as a young boy.

“He would have tantrums if he didn't get his way. But I mean, kids have tantrums - but not to that extent. He would throw things. He would kick - he would kick the floor [or] whatever - [he would] lie down and scream and cry,” she testified.

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The death penalty trial for the Parkland trial resumed this week after a week-long break and Cruz's lawyers have continued to take jurors through his life chronologically as they seek to prove his difficult childhood contributed to the violence. They hope it will be enough to persuade one juror to not back the death penalty, which would be enough for him to get life in prison instead.

In the first two weeks of their case, they traced Cruz's life from before he was born into his behavioral problems in middle school.

Among some of the most impactful testimony was that of Browd, the long-time friend of Nikolas' mother Lynda Cruz. She remembers Lynda being ecstatic to bring her baby home when she adopted him at birth.

“She always wanted to be a mother,” Browd said during her Aug. 29 testimony.

But Lynda’s joy turned to struggle, according to witnesses. Her husband Roger died when Nikolas was 5 years old. By that time she had adopted another boy, Zachary. The two boys caused trouble, but Nikolas was especially hard to control.

“She would have to make herself kind of like a straight jacket type thing where she had to hug him while he was having these episodes,” Browd told jurors.

Nikolas Cruz Trial April 27 2022 AP.jpeg
Amy Beth Bennett
South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz speaks with assistant Public Defender Gabe Ermine and paralegal Melissa Sly during jury pre-selection in the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

After her husband's death, Lynda Cruz took extreme measures to save money. Paul Gold, who was her neighbor from 2008 until 2011, gave testimony the following day. He told the court he occasionally brought groceries to the family and had the boys come over to play with his children.

“It seemed like there was not enough food in the refrigerator. She also started padlocking the refrigerator which was kind of weird… the kids would raid the refrigerator and eat everything even though everything really wasn't that much,” he said.

Gold testified that Lynda would unplug appliances and turn off her air conditioning to cut costs. He recalled one particular incident of violence, when Nikolas Cruz’s dog died after eating a poisonous toad in the neighborhood.

“He went out on a killing spree on the toads. I do recall that yes, he tried to kill every toad in the neighborhood,” Gold told the court on August 31. Cruz posted a photo on his instagram account in 2017 of a dead toad and captioned it “These things killed my dog. So I kill them pretty much.”

Gold testified that Lynda was scared of Nikolas and overwhelmed by raising the two boys. Many also testified that while she loved her children, she did not discipline them enough at home.

He was engaged to Rocxanne Deschamps at the time. She would eventually take the boys in after Lynda died in 2017, but told a press conference in 2018 that Nikolas had violent outbursts at the house. At one point she kicked Nikolas out after he refused to give up his guns.

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

Defense lawyers aren't arguing that Cruz's difficult childhood excuses his murders — but they say this context helps explain the violence. They have subpoenaed almost every teacher and mental health professional Cruz interacted with during his childhood.

The jury had already faced three straight weeks of grueling testimony from witnesses, graphic evidence presented in court and statements from the families of the 17 people murdered at the school.

Troubles in middle school

Elementary school teachers had already testified about his antisocial behavior. In the most recent phase of the defense's case, Cruz's team looked at his middle school years.

Carrie Yon was his teacher at West Glades Middle School. “He made me very uncomfortable and I immediately thought something was kind of up You know, I put them on my radar to watch him keep an eye on him,” she said.

He barely kept up with assignments and rarely performed at grade-level, she said. Cruz often drew stick figures involved in sexual acts and middle fingers on his work. She told the court his assignments were littered with misspelled words and mentions of gun fights.

Yon said that guns became an obsession for Cruz. She referred to him as NC in her records. “NC will find any excuse to bring up shooting guns or violence,” one of the disciplinary records read.

She told jurors about a time she reprimanded Cruz for talking in class. “I know that you can behave I've seen you and your a good  kid,” she told him, according to her evidence. She told the court he responded by shouting, “I’m a bad kid I want to kill.”

The defense are expected to continue presenting evidence into October. After closing arguments, jurors will have to vote on a life sentence or the death penalty. The decision must be unanimous for Cruz to be sentenced to death.

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.