In opening statements of Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty trial, his defense laid out their plan to persuade the jury to spare his life. They planned to present him as a disturbed, mentally ill human being.
“In telling you Nik’s story, in telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” public defender Melisa McNeill said in opening statements. “That is called mitigation. Mitigation is any reason that you believe that the death penalty is not an appropriate penalty in this case.”
And on Thursday, after months of disturbing evidence and tear-filled witnesses, the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without parole rather than the death penalty, a shock to many of the victims’ families.
A death sentence must be unanimous, so the defense only had to persuade at least one of the 12 jurors to their side. Parkland jury foreman Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR that three jurors voted against the death penalty.
“There was one with a hard ‘no,’ she couldn’t do it, and there was another two that ended up voting the same way,” he said. “(The hard no) didn’t believe, because he was mentally ill, he should get the death penalty.”
There are indications of behind-the-scenes tension in the jury room.
On Thursday a juror wrote a letter to the judge calling the deliberations “tense” and denying an accusation she heard that she had made up her mind to support a life sentence before the trial began.
And prosecutors are calling for law enforcement to interview a juror who said they felt threatened by another juror during deliberations, according to a court filing obtained by CNN.
The jury instructions listed 41 potential mitigating factors the jury could consider, and the defense returned to a few of them repeatedly.
Those mitigating circumstances fall into a few main categories: that Cruz admitted guilt up front; that he was “poisoned” in the womb by his mother’s use of drugs and alcohol; and that the death penalty, for Cruz at least, is immoral and unnecessary.
Here’s a look at the defense’s key arguments throughout the trial and how they brought the jury to their side.
Defense attorneys first and foremost highlighted that Cruz admitted to the killings and pleaded guilty to 34 charges last October.
“Every one of you sitting here and in this courtroom knows that there is one person responsible for all of that pain and all of that suffering,” McNeill said at the start of her opening statements in August. “And that person is Nikolas Cruz.
“On October 21, 2021, Nikolas Cruz pled guilty to all of the charges. When he did that, he guaranteed that he would be punished. The question that now remains with each and every one of you is how he will be punished.”
The decision to plead guilty came without any deal from the government of a lighter sentence. Other defendants accused of heinous crimes, such as the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing and the racist mass shooting at a Black church in South Carolina, pleaded not guilty and were sentenced to death.
In the sentencing phase of Cruz’s trial, the prosecution has talked in detail about Cruz’s actions on the day of the shooting. In response, McNeill has tried to defuse their argument by pointing to Cruz’s guilty plea.
“We have never said that he didn’t do that. He has never said that he didn’t do that,” she said. “What he did has never been in dispute. This phase of the trial of the proceedings is not about accountability.”
The defense’s main factual argument was that Cruz had mental health and developmental issues because his birth mother used alcohol and drugs during her pregnancy.
“Because Nikolas was bombarded by all of those things, he was poisoned in the womb. Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own,” McNeill said in opening statements.
The defense’s first two witnesses testified that Brenda Woodard, Cruz’s birth mother, used drugs and drank alcohol while pregnant. Carolyn Deakins, a recovering addict who in the 1990s used drugs, drank and worked as a prostitute with Woodard, testified Woodard showed no care for the coming baby and used all her resources to buy drugs and alcohol.
Danielle Woodard, Cruz’s sister, similarly testified her mother abused drugs and alcohol throughout their childhood, creating a hostile environment for the children.
“She had an addiction. She always put that first, before me, or him, or Zach (Cruz), or anybody,” she said.
Brenda Woodard, who died last year, gave up Cruz for adoption when he was born in 1998.
From an early age, Cruz had developmental delays and emotional and behavioral issues connected to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the defense argued. Several defense witnesses, including two expert doctors, disagreed on his exact diagnosis but said it was related to his mother’s alcohol use during pregnancy, noting that his mother actually admitted to alcohol use on his birth records.
“I have never, ever, in my life seen an individual who has been affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol in which there is documentation, and I think pretty darn good documentation of alcohol exposure,” testified Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones, a leading voice in alcohol-related neurological disorder. “I know I have never seen so much alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman.”
In closing arguments, the defense said he was “doomed from the womb” because of his mother’s actions.
“There is no time in our life when we are more vulnerable to the will and the whim of another human being than when we are growing and developing in the womb,” McNeill said.
Prosecutors had asked the jury to sentence the gunman to death, arguing Cruz’s decision to carry out the shooting was not only especially heinous or cruel, but premeditated and calculated and not, as the defense contended, related to any neurological or intellectual deficits.
In a death penalty trial, all of the jurors are “death qualified,” meaning they must be open to imposing the death penalty in order to serve on the jury. This means people completely opposed to the death penalty cannot serve.
Even so, much of the defense’s arguments tried to appeal to the jury’s moral qualms with the death penalty.
The defense argued that a sentence of life in prison without parole is sufficient to protect the public. They also argued that Cruz is under the care of a psychologist and psychiatrist, was compliant with his medications and had the ability to succeed in a structured and supervised environment like prison, according to the jury instructions.
“And in a civilized humane society, do we kill brain damaged, mentally ill, broken people?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “Do we? I hope not.”
In closing arguments, McNeill said that the prosecution was trying to make the jurors angry and emotional by playing horrific video and audio of the shootings. She instead pressed them to take a breath, open their hearts and minds and make a moral decision for mercy.
“In a death penalty sentencing proceeding, you have to use your heart, because you’re making an individualized moral decision,” she said.
Indeed, the brother of one of the victims told CNN last week that he did not support the death penalty for Cruz due to its immorality.
“Logically, it doesn’t follow for me that we say, ‘Murdering someone is this horrible, heinous, awful, terrible thing, and in order to prove that point, we’re going to do it to someone else,’” said Robert Schentrup, whose 16-year-old sister Carmen was among those killed.
“And I understood that if this is something that I felt that I believe that it needed to apply in my personal case and beyond,” he said. “I had to look deep into my values and say, is this something that connects with it? And if so, live through that.”