Across a trial that’s lasted for weeks, the jury who will decide whether Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz lives or dies has been subjected to deeply disturbing evidence.
They have seen the AR-15 rifle Cruz, now 23, used to kill 14 students and three staffers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day in 2018.
They have visited the crime scene where dried pools of blood still remain four years later, and notebooks are open on classroom desks, left behind by students who fled or were killed.
They have watched graphic security footage of the attack, showing Cruz stalking the corridors and killing indiscriminately, stopping over some bodies to shoot them again.
They have heard excruciating autopsy evidence detailing how his bullets tore through flesh, bones, and organs.
And they have listened to heartbreaking testimony from relatives and friends who wept as they shared details of the victims’ lives and described their unending grief.
But on Monday, the 12 jurors and 10 alternates began hearing evidence about the shooter himself as Cruz’s attorneys began their defense in the death penalty trial in Fort Lauderdale.
With the trial resuming after a roughly two-week break for the jury, lead attorney Melisa McNeill told the seven male and five female jurors that the evidence they would hear about the defendant was not a justification, explanation, or even defense for his crimes. Instead, McNeill said her job was to tell them more about who Cruz is and about his background — statements that caused at least one of the victim’s mothers sitting in the courtroom to close her eyes and shake her head silently.
“People are not crimes. People commit crimes, but we must understand the person behind the crime,” McNeill said. “What is the root cause?”
The trial began on July 18, but McNeill opted to take the rare step of deferring her opening statement until the prosecution had rested its case.
Cruz has already pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder, but the trial on whether he should be executed or imprisoned for life still represents a rare occasion where a jury has heard extensive evidence about a mass shooter, many of whom are either killed by authorities or kill themselves at the end of their rampage.
Speaking to the jury, McNeill painted a portrait of a “damaged human being” whose future was sealed before he was even born due to his mother’s extensive drug and alcohol use while she was pregnant and experiencing homelessness.
“He was poisoned in the womb and because of that his brain was irretrievably broken through no fault of his own,” McNeill said.
The jury heard that Cruz’s birth mother Brenda Woodard stole meat from supermarkets or turned to sex work in order to fund her addiction to crack cocaine and beer. After she became pregnant, she began making plans to place the baby for adoption, but continued to use substances every day.
Cruz’s defense first called as a witness Carolyn Deakins, who was friendly at the time with Woodard. Deakins, who is recovering from addiction, testified about the women’s daily drug and alcohol use, sex work, and stealing, and said Woodard had been adamant about not raising the baby herself. “She didn't want it,” Deakins testified, turning to Cruz. “Nikolas, I’m sorry, but that’s how it was.”
Also testifying was Cruz’s older half-sister Danielle Woodard, who was never adopted and spent her childhood with her grandmother and living in foster care. She recounted witnessing her “horrible” mother use drugs and alcohol while pregnant.
In their cross-examination, prosecutors sought to paint Nikolas as being more fortunate than Danielle for having been adopted by loving parents and into a nice home, but she later said she would not want to have been inside her mother’s womb while her mother used drugs and alcohol.
“She introduced me to a life that no child should ever be introduced to,” Danielle testified. “She has no regards for my life or his life.”
Defense attorney McNeill said Woodard’s drug use resulted in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and antisocial personality disorder for Cruz, who was adopted by Lynda and Roger Cruz when he was born. (The same couple also adopted Zach, Nikolas’ younger half-brother, when Woodard gave birth to him two years later. Roger died in 2004 and Lynda in 2017.)
Cruz also suffered from extensive developmental delays and mental health issues during his childhood, and he could often be so violent or threatening to his family that police were called to the home more than 40 times.
“Nikolas was poisoned. He was brain damaged,” McNeill said. “Now, no one ever really figured out what was wrong with Nikolas until his current situation.”
“It will be frustrating and maddening to you about all the opportunities that were missed in Nikolas’s life — things that he so desperately needed,” she added. “Sadly, we can't undo those harms and we can't undo the harms done to Nikolas and we can't undo the harm that Nikolas did to others.”
After attending special schools, Cruz eventually found himself at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, despite staff insisting he should have remained at facilities where he could get greater support.
At the high school, Cruz began cutting himself and drinking gasoline, while talking extensively about his desire to purchase firearms once he turned 18. His behavior so alarmed school officials that they asked for him to receive a mental health threat assessment, which resulted in him no longer being allowed to carry a backpack on campus — although his mother had already taken Cruz to purchase his first gun when he was 18.
In February 2017, Cruz was eventually informed by the school that he would not have enough credits to ever graduate, prompting him to run from the campus. McNeill said one of the school monitors who observed Cruz flee said, “That kid is going to come back and shoot this school up.”
McNeill also revealed that since his arrest and imprisonment, Cruz has been holding video conversations with Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. “You will hear that through those conversations that, together, her and Nick are trying to find a way to prevent this from ever happening again,” McNeill said.
Earlier this month, Lewis and her ex-husband Neil Heslin prevailed in a defamation lawsuit against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who had told viewers repeatedly that mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Parkland were staged events. The jury in Texas determined Jones must pay more than $49 million in damages.
Monday’s final witness was Susan Hendler-Lubar, who worked as a children’s special education counselor for the Broward County School Board and treated Cruz when he was a child.
Appearing after being subpoenaed, she testified about the “aggressive behaviors” Cruz had shown at a young age, including pushing and scratching other children, and his lack of verbal communication skills.
She said Cruz also demonstrated “animal fantasy behavior” wherein he would curl his hands into paws, hiss, scratch, and scale furniture as if he were pretending to be a tiger.
“That was pretty unusual to see that,” Hendler-Lubar said.
“None of us could determine at that time what was causing that,” she added.
After Cruz’s defense team rests its case, prosecutors will be allowed to present a rebuttal. Both sides will then give closing arguments before the jury begins to deliberate.
Despite all the evidence they have witnessed, jury members are forbidden from talking about anything to do with the trial with loved ones, therapists, or even each other until deliberations begin.