The defense attorney for Nikolas Cruz, who shot 17 people dead at a Florida school in 2018, told a jury Monday that as the child of an alcoholic birth mother his brain was “broken” and urged them not to sentence him to death.
Cruz has pleaded guilty to the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018, and the jury is deciding only whether he should be executed or receive life in prison.
Melisa McNeill, a public defender representing Cruz in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told jurors that the 23-year-old was born to a “homeless, mentally ill” mother who was an addict who used alcohol and drugs during her pregnancy.
“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,” she said.
She said that throughout much of his life his developmental and behavioral problems were not addressed.
Yet even though teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas recognized he was a threat to himself and to others, he did not get adequate care, and any support he had disappeared after he was forced to drop out in 2017 aged 18.
One year later, on February 14, 2018, Cruz returned to the school with a high-powered assault rifle and killed 17 people, including 14 students.
McNeill said the circumstances of his birth and upbringing should mitigate the punishment, and that life in prison was more appropriate than execution.
“Nikolas Cruz’s decision to take an Uber to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and kill as many people as he could possibly kill is not where Nikolas Cruz’s story starts,” she said.
McNeill said Cruz was born with fetal alcohol stress disorder and assessed at three with antisocial personality disorder.
His birth mother gave him up in a brokered private adoption, she said — but his adoptive mother also became an alcoholic, and he grew up in a broken home.
After Cruz left school, McNeill said he ended up living with his brother and mother in a home where police and social services were called dozens of times after violent incidents.
“He didn’t stop being brain-damaged. He didn’t stop being emotionally handicapped. He didn’t stop having language impairment. He didn’t stop needing services. But they were all gone,” she said.
Jurors, who visited the scene of the school and were shown harrowing videos of the mass shooting by prosecutors in July, have to vote unanimously if he is to be executed.
Aiming to persuade just one juror otherwise, McNeill stressed that each jury member has to make “an individualized moral decision” on whether Cruz’s life story mitigates the punishment.
“We will tell you Nikolas’ life story so that we can give you reasons to vote for life,” she said.