Defense Expert: Small Talk With Cruz Was Revealing

He said it's clear school shooter still has 'irrational thoughts'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 16, 2022 4:51 PM CDT
Defense Wants Nikolas Cruz's Brain Exams to Be a Factor
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is led from the courtroom after he was sworn in and waved his right to be present at the school while the jury walks through the crime scene, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, during the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse.   (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool, File)

Prosecutors rested their case in Nikolas Cruz's death penalty trial on Aug. 4; the defense will get its turn starting Monday. In the interim, both sides are arguing before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer about whether the brain scans, tests, and other evidence the defense wants to present is scientifically valid or junk, as the prosecution contends. Defense mental health expert Wesley Center last year administered a "quantitative electroencephalogram" or "qEEG," to the 23-year-old mass murderer. The test's backers say it provides useful support to such diagnoses as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz's attorneys contend created his lifelong mental and emotional problems.

As the AP explains, EEGs have been common in medicine for a century, measuring brainwaves to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain ailments. But the qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes a step farther—a patient's EEG results are compared to a database of brainwaves taken from "neurotypical" people. While qEEG findings cannot be used to make a diagnosis, they can support findings based on the patient's history, examination, behavior and other tests, supporters contend.

But Dr. Charles Epstein, an Emory University neurology professor who reviewed Center's findings for the prosecution, argues EEGs done using only external scalp probes like the one given Cruz are imprecise. "Garbage in, garbage out," he wrote in a written statement to Scherer of Center's results. But attorneys not involved in the case say if Scherer wants to avoid having a possible death sentence overturned on appeal, she should give the defense wide latitude on what it presents so jurors can fully assess his life and mental health.

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Even if Scherer bars the test, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team still have evidence that Cruz's brain likely suffered damage in the womb, including statements by his late birth mother that she abused alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy. They also have reports giving circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz got kicked out of preschool for hurting other children, for instance. Center notes Cruz still has "irrational thoughts"; when Center was administering the EEG, he says Cruz told him he "had some sort of epiphany" that once he was released from prison he wanted to help people. Cruz, of course, will never be free, with his two potential outcomes being a death sentence or life without parole.

(Read more Nikolas Cruz stories.)

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