Parkland shooter’s death sentence trial draws to a close as prosecution and defense prepare to present closing arguments | Regional/national titles

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will present their closing arguments at the Parkland school shooter’s sentencing trial on Tuesday, the last opportunity to make their case to the jury that will help decide whether the shooter is sentenced to death or life. life imprisonment.

The imminent conclusion of the month-long trial is coming almost a year after Nikolas Cruz24, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder for the February 14, 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 students and three school staff were you are.

Jury deliberations are scheduled to begin on Wednesday, during which time jurors will be sequestered, according to Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.

Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, argued Cruz’s decision to commit the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school was premeditated and calculated and not, as the defense suggested, related to mental disorders or developmental delays.

The state completed its rebuttal last week, which included a video in which Cruz told clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Denney that he chose to shoot on Valentine’s Day because he “had the felt like nobody liked me, and I didn’t like Valentine’s Day and I wanted to ruin it for everyone.”

Denney, who spent more than 400 hours with the shooter, testified for the prosecution, he concluded that Cruz suffered from borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, but did not meet the criteria Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, as argued by the defence.

When he read the list of names of the 17 people killed and asked if fetal alcohol spectrum disorder explained their murders, Denney answered “no” each time.

The defense, seeking to present the jury with mitigating circumstances – reasons why Cruz should not be sentenced to death but to life in prison without the possibility of parole – provided evidence of a life of struggles at home. and school, including being born to a woman who abused drugs and alcohol while pregnant with Cruz.

If they choose to recommend a death sentence, the jurors must be unanimous or Cruz will receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. If the jury recommends death, the final decision rests with Judge Scherer, who could choose to follow the recommendation or sentence Cruz to life.

Shooter was cold and calculated, prosecutors say

The lengthy trial — jury selection began six months ago, in early April — saw prosecutors and defense attorneys present evidence of aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances, why Cruz should or shouldn’t be put to death.

Prosecutors argued that Cruz was “cold, calculating, manipulative and murderous” in carrying out the attack, which lead prosecutor Michael Satz called “planned” and “systematic” in his opening statement in July. The state pointed to seven aggravating factors, he said, including that the killings were “particularly heinous, atrocious or cruel.”

“These aggravating factors far outweigh any mitigating circumstances,” Satz said, “anything to do with the defendant’s background, anything to do with his childhood, anything to do with his education, anything to do with his mental health, everything about his therapy, everything about his care.”

Underlining their argument, prosecutors presented evidence showing the shooter spent months researching information online about the mass shootings and left comments on social media sharing his express desire to “kill people”.

Some of his Google searches included broad, generic terms, like “murder” or “shooting people.” Others said he was looking for information on specific mass shootings and who carried them out. He also sought a map of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, from which he had been expelled, and information on “how long does it take for a cop to show up at a school shooting.” And on YouTube, Cruz left comments like “I’m gonna be a pro school shooter” and promised to “go wild.”

As part of the prosecution’s case, family members of the victims were given the opportunity to speak up and offer raw and moving testimony about how Cruz’s actions changed their lives forever. At one point, even members of Cruz’s own defense team cried.

“Our family is broken. There is this constant void,” testified Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter.

“I feel like I can’t really be happy if I smile,” Schachter said. “I know that behind that smile is the stark realization that a part of me will always be sad and miserable because Alex isn’t here.”

But before the accusation stops, the jurors also visited the site of the massacreMarjory Stoneman Douglas’ Building 1200, which had been sealed since the shooting to preserve the crime scene — strewn with dried bloodValentine’s Day cards and student belongings – for the trial.

La Défense paints the image of a “broken” person

In their own case, public defenders assigned to represent Cruz asked the jury to consider his troubled history, from a dysfunctional family life to serious mental and developmental issues, with attorney Melissa McNeill describing him as a person “damaged and injured”.

“His brain is broken,” she said. “He’s a damaged human being.”

Among the first witnesses was Cruz’s older sister, Danielle Woodard, who testified that their mother, Brenda Woodard, used drugs and drank alcohol during her pregnancy – something attorney Melissa McNeill said she had. rendered his brain “irreparably shattered” through no fault of his own.

“She introduced me to a life that no child should be introduced to,” she said. “She had no respect for my life or her life.”

The defense also called teachers and educators who spoke about developmental issues and delays Cruz exhibited as a young child, including problems with vocabulary and motor skills. Various counselors and psychiatrists also testified, offering their observations from years of treatment or interaction with Cruz.

Former Broward County School District Councilor John Newnham said Cruz’s grades in elementary school were below expectations. Cruz would describe himself as “dumb” and a “freak”, Newnham said.

Despite these apparent problems, Cruz’s adoptive mother, the late Lynda Cruz, was hesitant to seek help, according to the testimony of a close friend who lived down the street from the family, Trish Devaney Westerlind.

Newnham’s testimony echoes this: While Lynda Cruz was a caring mother, after her husband’s death she asked for help but did not use the support available.

“She was upset,” Newnham said. “She seemed to lack some of the basic foundations of positive parenting.”

Westerlind still accepts calls from Cruz and, despite being in his twenties, Cruz still talks like an 11 year old.

Cruz’s lawyers acknowledged that as he got older he developed a fascination with guns, and school staff raised concerns about his behavior with authorities, McNeill said.

In June 2014, an adolescent psychiatrist and school therapist at the school Cruz was attending at the time wrote a letter to an outside psychiatrist treating Cruz, in which they expressed concern. to kill others.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Brett Negin, who said he treated Cruz between the ages of 13 and 18, said he never received the letter.

The defense called a fraction of the expected witnesses

The defense case came to an unexpected end last month when – after calling just 26 of the 80 scheduled witnesses – the public defenders assigned to represent Cruz abruptly restedcausing the judge to reprimand the team for what she said was unprofessional, resulting in a courtroom row between her and the defense (the jury was not present).

Scherer then asked Cruz about the decision to rest, making sure he had the opportunity to discuss it with his lawyers and understood that it meant that no one else, including his brother Zachary Cruz, would take the decision. speak in his defence.

“Are you comfortable with the decision?” Scherer asked.

“Yes,” Cruz replied.

Defense attorneys would later file a motion to disqualify the judge for her comments, arguing in part that they suggested the judge was not impartial and that Cruz’s right to a fair trial had been compromised. Prosecutors disagreed, writing “judicial comments, even of a critical or hostile nature, are not grounds for disqualification.”

Scherer ultimately denied the motion.

Prosecutors then presented their rebuttal, concluding last week after a delay of three days attributed to Hurricane Ian.

As part of the rebuttal, a former high school student Marjory Stoneman Douglas said Cruz had a backpack with a swastika drawn on it, along with the n-word and other explicit language.

Separately, clinical neuropsychologist Denney testified that Cruz “tried to look bad” during the tests Denney administered to the shooter in March.

“Mr. Cruz grossly exaggerates his self-assessment, in terms of severe psychiatric issues, severe memory issues, cognitive issues, physical issues — he’s exaggerating all of that,” Denney said.

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Elna M. Lemons