FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The troubled life of Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people at his former Florida high school four years ago, began long before he was born, his lead defense lawyer told jurors on Monday, arguing that his biological mother’s heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs while pregnant irreparably harmed his developing brain. At birth, he was deprived of oxygen by an umbilical cord wrapped three times around his neck, and doctors spent the first minute after his delivery resuscitating him.
The mother who adopted him at birth was at first in denial over her young son’s mounting social, emotional and behavioral difficulties and later overwhelmed by trying to deal with his obsessions, including with guns. From the time of his first psychological evaluation when he was 3 years old to the day he carried out one of the deadliest mass school shootings in American history at the age of 19, Mr. Cruz dealt with a slew of therapists, teachers, psychiatrists, police officers and counselors who knew his problems were serious, his lawyer, Melisa McNeill, said.
Left unsaid: All failed to prevent the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“Wounded and damaged people wound and damage other people because they’re in pain,” Ms. McNeill, an assistant public defender, said in her nearly 90-minute opening statement at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Later, she added: “Nikolas was poisoned in the womb.”
Mr. Cruz’s defense team began to present its case on Monday to try to save his life in the rare trial of a gunman who survived a mass shooting. He pleaded guilty last year to 17 murders and 17 attempted murders and faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole in a sentencing trial that began in July.
Prosecutors wrapped their case two weeks ago, concluding with heart-wrenching testimony from people who lost loved ones and a visit to the school building where the shooting took place.
From the start, Ms. McNeill acknowledged that the courtroom was “a space filled with overwhelming sadness, painstaking grief and trauma.”
“We’ve all seen and heard things that no one should have to see or hear,” she said. “There is one person responsible for all of that pain and all of that trauma, and that person is Nikolas Cruz.”
He still says and does disturbing things while sitting in jail, Ms. McNeill acknowledged, such as scrawling “666” on the wall of his isolation cell using Atomic Fireball candy. He has recently been obsessed with demons and Satan, she said.
Ms. McNeill said her job was not to justify or make excuses for the mass shooting but to tell the story of the person behind the crime and give jurors “reasons for life” — mitigating circumstances to weigh against the “aggravating factors” prosecutors presented to justify the death penalty. Ms. McNeill stressed that each juror must decide individually on what punishment to impose; a death sentence requires a unanimous jury, so a single dissent could result in a life sentence.
“The law never requires you to vote for death,” she told them, not even “in the worst case imaginable.”
“Your life verdict can come from all of the things that Nikolas did not show those 17 beautiful souls,” she concluded. “It can come from compassion, it can come from grace, and it can come from mercy.”
She disclosed that Mr. Cruz had held video calls from jail with Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The revelation drew surprised gasps from the Parkland victims’ families present in court.
“Together, her and Nik are trying to find a way to prevent this from ever happening again,” Ms. McNeill said.
Undergirding Ms. McNeill’s argument was the contention that the gunman had suffered throughout his life from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder that went undiagnosed until after the shooting. The defense’s first witness, Carolyn Deakins, knew his biological mother, Brenda Woodard, who died last year. In the 1990s, both were alcoholics and drug addicts roaming the streets of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Ms. Deakins said she turned to prostitution to make money. So did Ms. Woodard, she said, though she added that Ms. Woodard preferred to “boost” — steal steaks, hot dogs or other meat from the grocery store — to pay drug dealers.
Ms. Woodard continued to smoke cigarettes, drink heavily and get high from crack cocaine and marijuana even after learning that she was pregnant.
“She didn’t care at that point,” Ms. Deakins said, adding that Ms. Woodard told her she was going to put up the baby for adoption. She said Ms. Woodard did not know who the child’s father was.
In June 1998, about three months before the baby was born, Ms. Deakins and Ms. Woodard were arrested and charged with cocaine possession. Ms. Deakins went to prison; Ms. Woodard went to a drug rehabilitation facility for pregnant women.
The baby was adopted by Lynda and Roger Cruz, an older couple — she was 48, he was 62 — who had suffered several miscarriages and a failed adoption. Ms. Cruz “didn’t want a special needs baby,” Ms. McNeill said, but added that she was “desperate” to have a “perfect family.” The couple would later adopt another baby boy born to Ms. Woodard.
Mr. Cruz’s troubles were apparent at a young age.
Susan Hendler Lubar, his preschool teacher, testified that he shoved and spit at other children. She created a space under a table draped with a blanket where he could act out fantasies of being a tiger or lion.
Roger Cruz died suddenly before the boy entered kindergarten, leaving Ms. Cruz in debt. Ms. McNeill said that over the years, Ms. Cruz would put timers on showers and unplug appliances overnight to save money. When specialists recommended committing Nikolas Cruz for treatment, she refused so as not to lose his Social Security benefits, Ms. McNeill said.
The police were called to the house more than 40 times, and an emergency youth mental health intervention team more than 14 times. Against experts’ recommendation, Ms. Cruz bought him a BB gun and an air rifle and went with him when he bought his first firearm.
Ms. Cruz died in 2017, about four months before the shooting.
The most dramatic moment in court on Monday came when the defense called Danielle Woodard, the gunman’s biological half sister, to testify. Ms. Woodard, who has served two prison sentences, is in jail in Miami-Dade County, awaiting trial on a pending carjacking case. She testified in a brown jail jumpsuit and guarded by sheriff’s deputies.
Ms. Woodard, 35, said she had not been in the same room as Mr. Cruz, who is now 23, since the day he was born, when she held him and asked her mother if they could keep him. She referred to him from the witness stand as her “baby brother” and at times became emotional. Mr. Cruz, who has frequently stared down when other witnesses have spoken, made eye contact with Ms. Woodard and appeared engaged during her testimony.
Ms. Woodard said her mother would take her to meet with her probation officer and have the younger Ms. Woodard secretly provide a clean urine sample for her.
“Brenda definitely had a drug problem,” she said, adding that she saw her mother use crack cocaine, drink “all the time” and smoke “like a chimney.”
Danielle Woodard often lived with her grandmother or her grandmother’s best friend and eventually bounced around between the foster care system and treatment shelters for teenagers. She said she told her mother she hated her.
“Do you love your brother?” Tamara Curtis, an assistant public defender, asked.
“I do,” Ms. Woodard said.