Nikolas Cruz’s defense says his brain was ‘poisoned’ by birth mother’s addictions in death penalty trial

“In telling you Nik’s story, in telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” public defender Melisa McNeill said Monday in a Florida courtroom. “That is called mitigation. Mitigation is any reason that you believe that the death penalty is not an appropriate penalty in this case.”

In particular, McNeill highlighted his birth mother’s abuse of drugs and alcohol during his pregnancy, saying Cruz showed signs from a young age of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

“Because Nikolas was bombarded by all of those things, he was poisoned in the womb. Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own,” McNeill said.

The comments were part of the defense’s opening statements in Cruz’s death penalty trial for the killing of 17 people and wounding of 17 more at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. It was the first time jurors have heard from Cruz’s defense. His attorneys deferred their initial opening statements, did not cross-examine any students or teachers who survived the shooting and asked only basic questions of other witnesses.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, and the ongoing phase of his criminal trial is to determine his sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, while Cruz’s defense attorneys are asking the jury for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Over three weeks in July and August, prosecutors argued Cruz was “cold, calculative, manipulative and deadly” in carrying out his attack and called to the stand a series of students, teachers, police officers and victims’ family members to bear witness to the horrific details of that day. Prosecutors also led jurors on a trip to the untouched scene of the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If jurors recommend Cruz be death to death, they must be unanimous.

In opening statements Monday, McNeill laid out Cruz’s difficult family life, including his mother’s history of addiction and the death of his adopted parents.

She called Cruz a “damaged and wounded” person and said attorneys plan to show the court disturbing things he said and wrote, his obsessions with guns and devils and even his school shooting “manifesto.”

“His brain is broken,” she said. “He’s a damaged human being. And that’s why these things happen.”

Cruz had developmental delays early in his childhood, including his difficulty communicating with others. He would bite others, lash out emotionally and was intellectually impaired, McNeill said.

The defense case may include testimony from Cruz’s siblings. Last week, Judge Elizabeth Scherer granted the state’s motion to compel depositions for Zachary Cruz, the gunman’s brother, and Richard Moore, who Zachary currently lives with in Virginia. Zachary Cruz and Richard Moore were ordered by the court to appear September 6 for deposition to “answer each and every question that are posed by the state.”

The defense has said it will not attempt to blame the crime on any third party or anyone except Cruz.

Fourteen of those killed were students: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Lowran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 14.

Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; wrestling coach Chris Hixon, 49; and assistant football coach Aaron Feis, 37, also were killed, each while running toward danger or trying to help students to safety.

CNN’s Eric Levenson and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.

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