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Lawyers for Parkland school shooter rest their case in surprise move

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 Defenders Melisa McNeill, left, and Tamara Curtis are shown during a sidebar discussion in the penalty phase of the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse Friday, Sept. 2, 2022.

Lawyers for the Parkland school shooter made a surprise announcement this morning when they told the judge they were resting their case.

Lead attorney Melisa McNeill told the court that they planned to rest their case despite not calling all of their 80 witnesses. The move caught Judge Elizabeth Scherer and prosecutors off guard.

"I have never experienced this level of unprofessionalism in my career. It's unbelievable,” Scherer said.

The day started with Scherer ready to “rock ‘n roll” with the next witness but quickly spiraled into her lambasting defense attorneys for not giving her a warning before their abrupt ending.

Lawyers then had to hurry to arrange a new schedule which includes the state’s rebuttal case and closing arguments.

Nikolas Cruz faces the death penalty on all 17 counts of murder. The jurors must unanimously vote for the death penalty, if one juror votes for life that will be his sentence, according to Florida law.

The state will present a rebuttal case starting on Sept. 27, according to the judge. It is estimated to take a week. After that, both sides will give closing arguments and the jury will go into deliberations. They will be sequestered during this time if the deliberations take longer than a day.

The defense’s case lasted 11 days, during which they called over 20 witnesses. Their case traced Cruz’s life from the womb to middle school and concluded with experts on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Cruz’s birth mother abused drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy, witnesses testified. This led Cruz to a lifetime of erratic and violent behavior, his lawyers argued.

He was adopted by Lynda Cruz at birth and quickly showed signs of behavior and language issues.

Teachers testified that he had trouble expressing his thoughts, he bit children and acted like an animal in preschool and elementary.

By the time he got to middle school Cruz was cursing at teachers, obsessed with guns and told a teacher he “wants to kill.”

Defense lawyers questioned multiple mental health professionals who treated Cruz during his childhood. Most testified that Lynda was not consistent in bringing Nikolas for appointments. Witnesses told jurors that Lynda was overwhelmed by Nikolas and his brother Zachary and did not get them the help they needed.

Cruz’s attorneys also spoke with behavioral and mental health experts who were hired for the trial and examined Cruz while he was incarcerated. They testified that he had severe language issues and that his birth mother was drinking heavily during her pregnancy.

The defense is trying to overcome weeks of graphic evidence presented by prosecutors. Jurors saw photos of the crime scene, autopsies photos and even toured the building where the shooting took place.

Jurors also heard from students who survived the shooting and family members of the 17 who were murdered.

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.