Lawyer: Nikolas Cruz Was 'Poisoned in the Womb'

Witness testifies that school shooter's mother refused to stop using drugs when pregnant
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 22, 2022 4:20 PM CDT
Lawyer: Nikolas Cruz Was 'Poisoned in the Womb'
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz looks up as Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill gives the defense's opening statement during the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.   (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP, Pool)

After weeks of harrowing testimony in the penalty trial of school shooter Nikolas Cruz, his defense team wants jurors to know more about the "person responsible for all that pain and all of that suffering." Public defender Melisa McNeill said in her opening statement Monday that jurors would hear about the "damaged and wounded" 23-year-old's grim start in life and dysfunctional upbringing, Fox reports. She said Cruz was born to a homeless sex worker who continued using alcohol and cocaine while she was pregnant with him. Cruz, she said, was "poisoned in the womb and because of that his brain was irretrievably broken through no fault of his own."

Cruz has pleaded guilty to killing 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the trial will determine whether he is sentenced to death or life in prison with no possibility of parole. McNeill's first witness, Carolyn Deakins, testified that she and Cruz's birth mother, Brenda Woodard, were sex workers in Fort Lauderdale in the late 1990s. She said Woodard, who died last year, refused to stop using drugs during her pregnancy, saying "she didn't care" because she was going to put the baby up for adoption, the AP reports. McNeill said Cruz had fetal alcohol syndrome and antisocial disorder but adoptive mother Linda Cruz was reluctant to seek treatment, and the situation deteriorated when adoptive father Roger Cruz died just before Cruz started kindergarten.

"His brain is broken, he’s a damaged human being and that’s why these things happened," McNeill said, per CNN. She said Linda Cruz, who died months before the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting, bought the troubled teen a firearm on his 18th birthday. She said that while nothing could excuse the massacre, the jury has "to make a decision about whether another human being lives or dies." The facts, she said, "are part of Nikolas’ story and it’s my job to tell you that story." McNeill revealed that Cruz has been in regular contact with Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son was killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, Fox reports. She said that in conversations in video jail visits, Cruz and Lewis have been "trying to find a way to prevent this from ever happening again." (Read more Nikolas Cruz stories.)

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