A dozen Broward jurors and 10 alternates got a preview Monday of what’s to come in the defense of convicted Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.
For nearly 90 minutes, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill’s opening statement focused on his life story and all those who failed him. She paraphrased an Irish poet who said the beginning holds the clues to what follows.
McNeill outlined how the gunman was born to a woman who abused alcohol and drugs while he was in the womb, was born developmentally disabled, was misdiagnosed, was anti-social, was mishandled by various school programs and how that culminated with the mass shooting that killed 17 and wounded 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
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“His brain is broken,” she said. “He’s a damaged human being.”
McNeill said there was no disputing the horror that happened on Feb. 14, 2018, but Cruz pled guilty to multiple murder and attempted murder charges which guaranteed he would be punished.
“The question is how he will be punished,” she said.
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Among those subpoenaed to testify for the defense are the gunman’s half-sister Danielle Woodard, half-brother Zachary Cruz and those who lived a life of alcohol and drug addiction with their mother Brenda Woodard.
First on the witness stand was Caroline Deakins who got drunk and high on crack cocaine with a pregnant Brenda Woodard more than 20 years ago.
“I told her, ‘You can’t do this, you’re pregnant,’” Deakins testified. "It’s not good for the baby."
Brenda said an adoption was arranged.
“She didn’t want [the baby],” Deakins said, looking at Cruz. “I’m sorry Nikolas, but that’s the way it was.”
On cross examination, Deakins admitted she didn't remember too many details of what happened back then because they were high or drunk most of the time.
Deakins also testified she has been sober since then and now mentors troubled women with the Helping Hands organization.
Cruz's half-sister Danielle Woodard, 35, was the next to testify.
She described the hardships of living with a "horrible" mother she referred to as Brenda.
“ was the time of my life that I lived with Brenda, and Nikolas was developing in her polluted womb," she said on the witness stand.
Danielle was a child when her mother's addictions started and they continued during Brenda's pregnancy with Nikolas Cruz.
"I noticed she looks pregnant. She has a baby bump,” Danielle Woodard recalled from when she was about 11-years-old. “I asked her, ‘Are you pregnant?’ and she said, ‘I got raped.'"
She went on to explain how she became a 12-year-old runaway, a drug abuser, and how she turned to a life of crime resulting in numerous arrests and two prison terms. She was wearing jail overalls in court and is facing more charges in Miami-Dade County.
“How did it affect my life? In many ways," she testified. "[Brenda] just introduced me to a life that no child should ever be introduced to.”
Danielle Woodard said she loved her brother and being in court was only the second time she had been in the same room with Nikolas Cruz since he was born.
“I held him. He was full of life. He was moving around," she recalled of his birth. "[He] was real squirmy.”
Former Broward school district teacher and counselor Susan Handler Lubar was the last to testify Monday. She explained the difficulties she experienced with Cruz as a preschooler.
“The goal was to help Nikolas Cruz express himself in a positive way,” she said, but the programs for preschoolers didn't exist at the time.
Jurors are being asked to make a life-or-death decision for each of the 17 murders. The death penalty would require a unanimous vote for all 17. One vote against each would result in a life sentence for the 23-year-old gunman.