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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Rafael Olmeda

Testimony ends in Stoneman Douglas mass shooting trial

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Testimony in the Parkland mass shooting trial came to an end Thursday, and the judge presiding over the case told jurors to get ready for closing arguments on Tuesday.

Confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz is facing the death penalty for each of 17 counts of murder. He pleaded guilty to the killings nearly a year ago, willing to accept a life sentence without putting Broward County through the spectacle of a trial when his guilt was never really in doubt.

But prosecutors have insisted from the beginning that the defendant’s fate will be decided by a jury. A unanimous vote is required for a death sentence. A dissenting juror would have to vote no 17 times.

If the jury recommends death, Cruz’s fate falls into the hands of Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer.

In the final day of testimony, a video showed Cruz, 24, telling mental health experts he was molested as a child by the son of a family friend, who promised time on his video game system in exchange for sexual favors. In separate interviews, he said he was 80% sure it had taken place when he was 8, or 9, or 10. He said it happened to him and his brother. And he said his mother was convinced it never happened, which would explain his later doubt.

The account was hinted at in earlier testimony during the defense presentation, but it was raised again in court Thursday afternoon, this time with explicit details and in Cruz’s own voice. Recordings were played outside the presence of the jury. Defense lawyer Casey Secor discussed the allegation as a traumatic event that prosecution expert Robert Denney did not factor into his analysis. Prosecutors played the recording to show Cruz was not certain the molestation actually took place.

Denney testified earlier Thursday that Cruz has repeatedly demonstrated he is in full control of his faculties.

Cruz proved it time and again, said Denney, a neuropsychologist, picking up his testimony where he left off on Tuesday. Cruz proved it when he decided to kill three victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School because they gave him a “nasty look,” Denney said. He proved it when he timed his 17 murders because he wanted to “ruin” Valentine’s Day for the school. And he proved it when he scrawled a swastika, swear word and racial slur on his backpack and wore it to school.

Each of these was a behavior under the defendant’s control, Denney said. And none of it could be explained by the defense theory that Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

The defense has asked the jury to consider Cruz’s lifelong mental health struggles as “mitigating factors” that justify mercy over a death sentence.

Denney and an earlier witness, psychiatrist Charles Scott, undermined defense arguments by accusing Cruz of deliberately lying to make his symptoms look worse than they are. The climax of Denney’s testimony came at the end of direct examination, when prosecutor Jeff Marcus asked a battery of questions about whether fetal alcohol spectrum disorder could explain Cruz’s actions.

Cruz suffers from antisocial personality disorder, which is firmly in the patient’s control, Denney said. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is physiological, and its effects cannot be controlled.

But fetal alcohol spectrum disorder could not explain the amount of planning that went into the 2018 shooting, Denney said. It could not explain the swastikas on his backpack, the expressions of racism, the attack on a jail guard, or the internet searches for child porn.

And it could not explain any of the 17 murders, which Marcus listed one by one, identifying almost all of the victims by first name only.

Jurors will have to perform a similar task, weighing death or life for each of the 17 murder counts to which Cruz pleaded guilty last October.

Secor called Denney’s expertise into question, insinuating the neuropsychologist did not know enough about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder to offer an expert opinion.

The defense case for mercy, outlined by attorney Melisa McNeill in her opening statement last month, did not seek to explain or excuse Cruz’s actions but to “place them in context” so jurors could distinguish the crime from the person who committed it.


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